In the wake of the Colorado Avalanche's 6-3 destruction of the Chicago Blackhawks last weekend, forward Nathan MacKinnon emerged as the first start of the game with two goals and one assist. His dominance was impressive as he recorded seven shots on goal and was typically the best player on the ice when he was out there. It was about damn time, too, as MacKinnon is considered among the team's top two forwards and should be among the leaders in scoring but had started to lag behind a bit.
Lost a bit in the hype of MacKinnon's performance was his linemate, right wing Mikko Rantanen, who also scored two goals and an assist against Chicago and was the game's second star. That his performance almost seemed lost in the shuffle speaks more to the overall frustration with MacKinnon's poor start than anything to do with Rantanen as he has been among Colorado's top point producers all season. Rantanen currently sits atop the Colorado scoring leaderboard with 10 points (3 g, 7 a) in 11 games.
The frustration for Rantanen early on was his inability to find a rhythm alongside MacKinnon at even strength through the season's first ten games. Until the Chicago game, Rantanen had scored seven points but only two at even strength. Two of his three points against the Blackhawks came at five on five, finally giving Colorado's top line something to build upon.
"Last game was good," Rantanen said in his typically understated way. "It was our best game at five on five of the season. Our first ten games, our five on five wasn't that great. We were producing chances but we would get one opportunity and that was it. Last game, we got some possession in the o-zone and we played better defensively, too, so all around it was a better game."
One of the big catalysts for the line's outburst was the decision to swap Gabe Landeskog onto the line and have Sven Andrighetto, who scored a goal and an assist in his new spot, take his old place next to Matt Duchene.
"Landy is a great player," Rantanen said, nodding in Landeskog's direction. "He's really responsible defensively so it's nice to play with him. He can see the ice and he's a strong guy so he's really good down low against other team's defensemen. It's a good line right now."
It was still just one game of success, though, and Rantanen was quick to admit there are things, especially defensively, his line needs to continue working on in order to make their offensive output more consistent.
"There are still some...what we can do as a five-man group, we can do some better things there," Rantanen explained. "But last game, we improved there a lot and got the puck out of our end. First few games, most games we were always in the d-zone and that takes the legs off and then you don't have energy to go to the o-zone. That's what you expect from the top line, to get away from the d-zone."
In just his second season with the Avalanche but his third since being drafted tenth overall in 2015, Rantanen almost feels like a veteran on such a young team but it's important to remember he just turned 21 three days ago. The team's youth has been a major catalyst for the decent start to the season.
"It's a lot of fun now," Rantanen laughed. "We have a lot of young guys here and everybody wants to get better. Everybody wants to get better and luckily we have a speedy team. We have some injuries now but the other guys who came up have played well. It's good for us and we have to keep it that way and stay hungry."
With the young guy spotlight now on so many of his teammates, how does Rantanen feel in his second full year in the NHL?
"It feels comfortable," he said. "I don't notice anything anymore. It's my second season. You get used to it better and better. You know the buildings and where to go and you know the guys better so it's all easier."
For the guy leading Colorado in scoring after one month, the NHL better hope it doesn't get too much easier for him.