DENVER (AP) — The Colorado Avalanche gathered in the cramped locker room and waited — with water bottles at the ready — for the player of the moment to enter.
Once Mikko Rantanen stepped through the doorway, he got drenched in a celebration the team posted on social media. That’s quite a way to soak in a milestone that hasn’t happened all that often in franchise history.
With his hat trick Thursday night in San Jose, the right winger nicknamed “ The Moose ” became the fifth player in Colorado/Quebec history to reach the 50-goal plateau for a season. He is the first for the Avs since Milan Hejduk in 2002-03 and also the third NHL player from Finland to achieve the feat.
Ask the ever-humble Rantanen the secret behind his success this season — his 52 goals are 16 more than his previous high — and he keeps his explanation simple.
“Shooting more,” he cracked.
It’s as good of reason as any, because he is. Those 293 well-placed shots are a career-high and rank 10th in the league.
Really, though, Rantanen’s prodigious scoring season has come out of necessity. With the defending Stanley Cup-champion Avalanche dealing with an array of injuries all season, he’s elevated his game.
“The more it goes in, the more you want to shoot it,” Avalanche coach Jared Bednar explained. “I think you’re seeing a little bit of growth in that with Mikko.”
Rantanen has never really been one to zero in on goal-scoring goals for a season. He takes a more basic approach — he just skates.
“I feel like if you just play hard and play for the team, play to win games, the individual stuff is going to come automatically,” the 26-year-old said.
Rantanen joined elite company by reaching the 50-goal mark. Others in franchise history accomplish the feat include Quebec Hall of Famer Michel Goulet, who eclipsed the mark four times, including 57 goals in 1982-83, and Avalanche Hall of Famer turned team executive Joe Sakic (51 goals the season Colorado won the Cup in 1995-96 and 54 when the team hoisted it again in 2000-01). Jacques Richard (52 in 1980-81) and Hejduk (50 in 02-03) also are members of the prestigious club.
What’s more, only a pair of Finnish players have ever recorded 50 or more goals in a season — Jari Kurri (four times) and Teemu Selanne (three). Selanne congratulated Rantanen on social media, posting a photo along with it.
“Obviously, you’re kind of like, ‘Look at those names. They were very good players. I’m happy to be here where I am,’” said Rantanen, who joined Connor McDavid and Mitch Marner as players from the 2015 NHL draft class to eclipse 500 career points. “But I don’t really still try to think about it too much. … I don’t think about any individual stats because that’s not the winning recipe.”
He’s needed to step up in light of all the injuries. Missing at times have been goal scorers such as Artturi Lehkonen and Valeri Nichushkin. Captain Gabriel Landeskog (knee) has been sidelined all season.
This version of Rantanen comes complete with a feisty attitude, too. He’s not shy to stick up for his teammates — or himself — as he’s logged a career-high 68 penalty minutes.
“Sometimes I do get fiery,” said Rantanen, whose team is currently tied with Dallas for the top spot in the Central Division. “Maybe it’s just the desire to win so bad.”
It was inside the penalty box during a game last month in Dallas where he flashed his comical side. A fan appeared to heckle him so Rantanen took off his glove and pointed at his ring finger.
“Probably afterward I should have not done that,” said Rantanen, who’s two points away from his first 100-point season. “Maybe I have to learn try to keep my cool. Some guys are very good at it. I’m not very good at it.”
In years past, he’s had more of a pass-first sort of demeanor. It’s easy to understand why: He’s frequently been on the same line with Nathan MacKinnon, who just recorded his first career 100-point season.
“If you can find (MacKinnon) open, then you’re going to try to get him the puck,” Bednar said with a smile.
But paired with different combinations of players this season, Rantanen has been looking for his shot more often. Rantanen’s also logging more ice time (22 minutes a game), taking more faceoffs and dishing out more hits.
Of course, scoring more, too.
After the game Thursday, MacKinnon presented him with a puck to commemorate reaching the 50-goal mark. Rantanen made sure to pass along the credit.
“Good job, boys,” Rantanen said in the video. “Thanks for all the great plays, great assists this year.”
Pat Graham, The Associated Press