San Antonio Rampage
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Mikko Rantanen was at an odd angle, but he couldn’t miss on the night of Feb. 7. The pass came right of the net and Rantanen dropped to a knee as he fired the one-timer, sending hats flying down at the Pepsi Center.

It was his third goal of the night for a hat trick and a sign of things to come.

Ten days later, there was another one-timer and another first for Rantanen. Friday night, Rantanen blasted a goal against Carolina for his first career overtime winner.

“Those are the kind of nights you dream of when you’re a kid playing hockey,” Rantanen said. “I’m trying to enjoy every moment.”

Rantanen was a star in San Antonio last season, setting a string of rookie records on his way to the AHL Rookie of the Year award. This season, he has impressed as an NHL rookie and joins a group of Rampage alums who have been bright spots for the Colorado Avalanche this month.

Rantanen is third in scoring on the Avalanche this season with 12 goals and 15 assists.

Defenseman Nikita Zadorov, who played 52 games in San Antonio last season, is leading the Avs with 149 hits this season. He even drew the eye of Hockey Night In Canada’s Don Cherry after some of the NHL’s biggest hits of the season against Winnipeg last week.

And goalie Calvin Pickard has made many highlight reel saves since stepping up to the starter’s role in December.

“San Antonio definitely helped us prepare for this,” Pickard said. “We have a lot of good young talent in this organization. While the results haven’t been what we’ve wanted, every game has been a new challenge, and we’re getting better with each one.”

The Avalanche (16-38-2) have faced adversity this season, but the future is looking brighter thanks to Pickard, Rantanen, and Zadorov.

Rantanen set Rampage rookie records last season for goals (24) assists (36) and points (60), even though he missed 24 Rampage games.

While a Top 10 pick is often rushed into duty, the Finnish 20-year-old and No. 10 overall pick in the 2015 NHL Draft was given a season in San Antonio to get used to the pro game and smaller North American ice compared to international rinks.

The patience has paid off, with Rantanen growing more and more comfortable in an Avs uniform. He has scored four goals with three assists in nine February games.

“It was a good decision to give me a year in San Antonio,” Rantanen said. “I wasn’t going to be playing a lot of minutes in Colorado last year, and you need that when you’re young.”

Rantanen’s biggest moment came against Montreal on Feb. 7, when he had his first career hat trick in a 4-0 win, scoring all three goals on the Canadiens’ star netminder Carey Price.

Rantanen became the third Avalanche rookie to have a hat trick and at 20, he’s the second-youngest Avalanche player to record a hat trick. Linemate Nathan MacKinnon had one when he was 19.

In an NHL season where Auston Matthews and Patrik Laine have headlined a youth movement taking the league by storm, Rantanen has included his name in the conversation of a once-in-a-generation rookie class.

“My time in San Antonio really helped me learn how to play the game here,” Rantanen said. “We haven’t won enough games, but there are a lot of good young guys in the organization.”

The night of Rantanen’s hat trick also marked Pickard’s second shutout of the season, as he outdueled Price for the night.

It was the first shutout of the Canadiens for the Avalanche franchise since 1981 when the Avs were the Quebec Nordiques.

While Pickard spent three seasons in Lake Erie and 21 games in San Antonio as Colorado moved its affiliate before the 2015-16 season, Pickard made his time in South Texas count.

He was named CCM/AHL Goaltender of the Month for October 2016, receiving a quick call-up and spending the season between the NHL and San Antonio.

Pickard began 2016-17 as the backup to Avs goalie Semyon Varlamov, and a groin injury to Varly in December pushed Picks into a starting role. With Varlamov undergoing season-ending hip surgery at the end of January, Pickard has been Colorado’s man in net.

Pickard has a .907 save percentage and 2.91 goals against average in 31 games this season.

“You never want to see a guy go down, but I’m also trying to make the most of my opportunity,” Pickard said. “In Cleveland and San Antonio, I got to see every situation and had the privilege to play quite a bit, which gave me the experience I needed.”

- Lorne Chan