The first thing Evan Rodrigues did was turn and point in partial disbelief to the middle man.
“What a play,” he told Mikko Rantanen. “What a pass.”
It was Rantanen’s second assist of the second period Thursday night. The first one seemed difficult to one-up, but he pulled it off. Rodrigues was still in awe as he skated to the bench.
“It was an elite play,” he said after Colorado’s 5-4 shootout loss to Los Angeles. “I didn’t even think he saw me. He wasn’t even facing the net. He was facing the other corner.”
Rantanen truly was the barely noticeable middle man. Cale Makar, in one of his prettier flourishes of a superb night, skated past a Kings’ defender as he crossed the blue line with the puck. He carried it behind the net then slipped a quick pass to Rantanen at the edge of the crease. On first viewing, it might’ve looked like a lucky bounce when the puck ended up on Rodrigues’ stick on the opposite side of the crease.
It was not. Rantanen made a reflexive, nimble touch pass. It happened too quick for Kings goalie Pheonix Copley to register. Rodrigues had a half-open net.
“Nice touch. He’s in tight,” Avalanche coach Jared Bednar said. “The awareness to know that E-Rod was charging the back post there. Lots of guys, when you’re watching Cale, can be puck-focused and thinking, ‘How am I going to score on this goalie when he slides it to me?’ And (Rantanen) gets it and just one-touches it over, and it’s a tap-in.”
Rantanen’s season has been defined by scoring, but his night was defined by making the extra pass. Earlier in the second period, J.T. Compher scored on an even emptier net. After Los Angeles failed to clear the zone on an Avalanche power play, Rodrigues worked the puck to Rantanen on the right side of the slot. With the defense out of position, he had a clear shot and probably would have scored.
But Compher had a better angle. Again, Rantanen passed to the opposite side of the crease.
It might have been his second-best pass of the season so far. But not his best: Bednar, asked which assist was more impressive, said: “The touch by the net.”
Injury updates: MacKinnon close to return
Nathan MacKinnon is “really close” to returning from his upper-body injury and hasn’t been ruled out for Colorado’s New Year’s Eve game against Toronto, Bednar said. If he’s able to play Saturday (5 p.m. MT), that would be 25 days after the team estimated a four-week absence.
MacKinnon was in a red no-contact jersey Friday for his third practice with the team. He started skating individually Dec. 20 after sustaining the injury Dec. 5 in Philadelphia.
“He’s basically doing everything,” Bednar said. “So even though he has a red on, it’s just because we don’t want him to get dinged up in practice. But his next step will be telling us he’s ready to play.”
Same with Darren Helm, who practiced in a gray contact sweater for the first time Friday. Helm had been skating with the team but in red for weeks, recovering from an injury that has taken longer than Bednar anticipated before the season. Helm is not ready to play vs. Toronto, though.
As for Valeri Nichushkin, there’s another step between his current status and playing. “Val will be: ‘I’m ready to get on the ice,’” Bednar said. Nichushkin’s reaggravated ankle injury has left him classified as day-to-day again.