At some point, we have to come up with a viable, consensus name for the Avalanche’s top line of Nathan MacKinnon centering Gabe Landeskog and Mikko Rantanen.
“A Canadian, a Swede and a Finn” is accurate, but it doesn’t work.
Bringing in the uniform numbers, calling it “The Nine Line,” (i.e., 29, 92 and 96) harkens back to when Matt Duchene (9) centered or was on a wing in various combinations.
So that’s for another day, and for now it’s pertinent to talk about the line’s amazing night in the 6-5 loss to the NHL’s best team, the Tampa Bay Lightning, on Saturday and look ahead at where it goes from here as the Avalanche continues to demonstrate that at the very least, this is an entertaining team that is a quantum leap better than last season’s 48-point horror show.
The line produced all five goals, with Landeskog getting a hat trick and two assists and MacKinnon getting the other two goals. It was Landeskog’s second hat trick in his most recent 12 games.
The Avalanche will be 15-15-2 going into Monday night’s home game against Pittsburgh, the second matchup in eight days of the friends and Tim Hortons pitchmen from Halifax, Nova Scotia — MacKinnon and the Penguins’ Sidney Crosby.
MacKinnon is torrid and as the power forward on the line, Landeskog is taking advantage of it.
“We’ve been together now from the start of November,” Landeskog told me after practice Sunday. “Nate was (NHL) first star for November for a reason and he kind of led us, leading our team as far as offense goes and was on a roll. Mikko and I were just trying to do our part, work hard.
“Obviously, we’re an offensive line, so we should be scoring goals, we should be contributing offensively. That’s what should be expected out of us and what we should expect as well. Saying that, we know we need to be good defensively as well. We need to be reliable and we still have some work to do there. But for me individually, I felt good right before the (four-game NHL) suspension there, and I felt like I was in a groove.”
Landeskog’s top goal-scoring season was 2013-14, when the Avalanche amassed 112 points and the Swedish captain contributed 26 goals. Despite missing the four games after his cross-check on Calgary’s Matthew Tkachuk, he has 13 goals in 28 games this season, and if he stays healthy and stays out of the vice principal’s office, he should reach the 30-goal benchmark for first time.
“If you look at the guys I’ve played with in the past here and been successful with, they’ve been a little different than Nate,” Landeskog said. “Paul Stastny and Ryan O’Reilly were more give and go type of players and Nate’s the guy you can look for on the breakout, give him the puck and then he’ll find ways to transport the puck into the O-zone, whether he pulls up or takes it to the net or creates something on his own.
“A lot of times it’s just a matter of talking, coming into the zone late and talking to him and he’ll find you pulling up late. We’ve connected a few times over the years on that. But in the zone, you find ways as a lone, and Mikko and I obviously want to get to the net and even down low in the zone. We have to find ways to create offense off cycles and things like that, and Mikko’s a hell of a player as well, and I think we all complement each other.”
Can this line become one of the game’s relatively long-term lines?
“I hope so,” Landeskog said. “Three guys around the same age and three guys that want to be here for a long time and hopefully will be. . . It’s a fun responsibility, it’s something that we take a lot of pride in, to be that line to play against a lot of the other teams’ top lines and top D pairings.”
Avalanche coach Jared Bednar emphasized that Landeskog can’t try to get too cute.
“The key to his success scoring goals is to play to his identity and be a big power forward and be a big guy that plays in straight lines and plays physical offensively and gets to the front of the net,” Bednar said. “He’s got great hands around the net. He’s tipping pucks in. He’s screening the goalie. He’s getting secondary chances through hard work. So that to me is the key, speaking of Gabe in particular, you don’t want him to get too fancy and play a skill game because his chances will decrease. If he plays the way he has been playing and plays to his strengths, he’s going to continue to produce.”
Now if we can just come up with a line on a name …
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Denver-based journalist Terry Frei writes two commentaries a week about the Avalanche for Mile High Sports. He has been named a state’s sports writer of the year seven times, four times in Colorado (including for 2016) and three times in Oregon. He’s the author of seven books, including the fact-based novel “Olympic Affair” about Colorado’s Glenn Morris, the 1936 Olympic decathlon champion; and “Third Down and a War to Go,” about the 1942 football national champion Wisconsin Badgers and the players’ subsequent World War II heroism. His web site is terryfrei.com and his additional “On the Colorado Scene” commentaries are at terryfrei/oncolorado.
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