Two young Finns will take center stage tonight as the Colorado Avalanche finally returns home for its first game at Pepsi Center in nearly two weeks.
Forward Mikko Rantanen will make his season debut for the Avs and will face-off against fellow countryman and former teammate Patrik Laine of the Winnipeg Jets.
Rantanen, who was recalled from the San Antonio Rampage on Monday afternoon after a four-game stint in the AHL, said he is excited to be back in Denver but noted the atmosphere for his season opener this year is a lot different than when he began the 2015-16 campaign on the Avalanche's opening-night roster.
Video: Mikko Rantanen on making his season debut
"It was a little bit different last year, my first game. Now, it's easier this year because I know a little bit about how the game is," Rantanen said after Colorado's morning skate on Friday. "It's going to be easier tonight. I'm really excited."
The native of Nousiainen, Finland, began the season on the training table after injuring his ankle at the Rookie Showcase against the San Jose Sharks on Sept. 17, forcing him to miss all three weeks of training camp and the preseason.
Once healthy, Rantanen had to get back up to speed on the new systems the Avs will play, so the 19-year-old went down to begin the season with the Rampage--the same team where he shared the league's rookie of the year award after posting 60 points (24 goals and 36 assists) in only 52 games last year.
"It was good to get those four games in San Antonio and get a little bit up on game shape and speed," Rantanen said. "Now I feel really good, and I'm ready to play."
He'll start this evening's contest in a top-six role, playing his natural position of right wing on a young line that features 21-year-old Nathan MacKinnon at center and 22-year-old Mikhail Grigorenko at left wing.
"Both are terrific players, so it's pretty good for me to play there," Rantanen said. "It's going to be fun."
The young-gun line and the rest of the Avs will look to slow down the momentum that Laine and the Jets have been playing with recently, as they're coming off a 4-1 victory last night at home.
Laine, who was picked No. 2 overall at the 2016 draft, is tied for the NHL lead with six goals and has recorded eight points overall, three behind the league leader.
"I'm not surprised," Rantanen said of Laine's start. "Everyone saw what he did last year. I think everybody knew that he could do those same things in the NHL, like he has done. It's very good for him, and he's a very good player. We're going to have to be careful with him."
Rantanen is familiar with Laine, having played with him at last year's World Junior Championship in their native Finland. Rantanen captained the Finns, while Laine earned All-Star Team honors after registering 13 points (seven goals and six assists) in seven games during the country's run to the championship.
Video: Nikita Zadorov talks about facing the Jets
"He's a good guy and a good teammate, too," Rantanen said. "It was obviously a nice moment for each of us. I trained with him this whole past summer, so it was good. I know him, and he's my good buddy. Hopefully, I'll be able to get a couple hits on him."
One thing that does play in Colorado's favor is that Laine has yet to score on the road, as each of his six tallies--including his hat trick versus Toronto on Oct. 19--have come at MTS Centre.
Still, Laine has certainly gained the attention of the league and is an early candidate for the Calder Trophy.
"We know he is a goalscorer. We know he has a great shot. He's shooting the puck hard," said Colorado defenseman Nikita Zadorov, who has kept tabs on the Finn's play at the World Championship in May and at September's World Cup of Hockey.
The Jets are coming into Denver on the second half of a back-to-back and playing their fourth game this week, which included the outdoor Heritage Classic last Sunday. The Avs, who have had five days between games, will look to take advantage of their fresh legs.
"We're certainly aware of the schedule that Winnipeg has had, and [Arizona] for that matter going into tomorrow," Colorado head coach Jared Bednar said. "It's tough schedules, road, travel, home and play. Winnipeg has played, this will be their fourth game this week and we've been off. So we want to jump on them early and come after them all night."
The key to slowing down Laine and the rest of the Jets' young scorers is the same way as with any great talent: limiting their time with the puck and the space they have to work with.
"We just have to play hard on him," Rantanen said. "He has a good shot, so we have to have good sticks and try to block his shots and stay close to him. That's the way."
LOOKING FOR CONSITENCY
Head coach Jared Bednar mixed up his line combinations at practice this past week in an attempt to generate more offense out of his forward group.
"I want to find some more depth in our production, more consistency out of our team game," Bednar said. "We've shown flashes of it. We've had games where we've been really good at it."
Among the changes included moving Matt Duchene from wing to his natural position of center on a line with Gabriel Landeskog and Jarome Iginla, and adding John Mitchell as the pivot of the fourth line with Joe Colborne and Andreas Martinsen on his wings.
Video: John Mitchell makes his season debut
Mitchell will be making his season debut tonight after missing all of the preseason and the first five contests of the regular campaign with a hip-flexor injury.
"This is my home opener, basically, my first game," Mitchell said. "You always want to come into the game and play hard and see where you're at. Obviously, these guys have had preseason and five games to get themselves going and whatnot. So I just want to get up to speed as fast as I can."
Gabriel Bourque and Manitoba native Cody McLeod will be the healthy scratches for the Avalanche. Defenseman Fedor Tyutin is also out, as he hasn't practiced with the club since missing the last game on Saturday at Florida with a groin injury.
Gabriel Landeskog - Matt Duchene - Jarome Iginla
Mikhail Grigorenko - Nathan MacKinnon - Mikko Rantanen
Rene Bourque - Carl Soderberg - Blake Comeau
Joe Colborne - John Mitchell - Andreas Martinsen
Nikita Zadorov - Erik Johnson
Patrick Wiercioch - Tyson Barrie
Francois Beauchemin - Eric Gelinas