DENVER — The first couple of months of Antti Raanta’s NHL career were dizzying — called up by the Blackhawks in mid-November when Nikolai Khabibulin was injured, thrown into his first game in the middle of the first period two days later, thrust into the No. 1 spot for nearly a month when Corey Crawford was hurt.
Things have slowed down considerably since then. In fact, Raanta made his first start in 43 days Wednesday night at the Pepsi Center against the Colorado Avalanche. But while Raanta has his own place in Chicago now, and is settled into the rhythms of the NHL season and the culture of an NHL dressing room, the last thing he wants to do is get complacent.
“When you start feeling too comfortable, you start doing wrong things,” he said before the game. “So, [I’m] just all the time trying to learn still, and trying to do the right things, and trying not to do too much. Because [if I do], then it looks pretty horrible for me.”
Well, Raanta wasn’t horrible, but he came out on the short end of a 3-2 loss to the Avalanche — a game that dropped the Hawks to third place in the Central Division, one point behind Colorado, which finished the season series with four wins in five tries against the Hawks. In fact, the Hawks have won just once in eight games against the teams ahead of them in the Central — the Blues and the Avalanche.
Raanta was excellent early on during a wild first few minutes, and twice bailed out Duncan Keith with big saves after turnovers. But he gave up a bad goal to Brad Malone from a very sharp angle late in the first, and was beaten by Matt Duchene 19 seconds into the second.
Patrick Kane scored his 29th goal on a beautiful individual effort later in the second, but Ryan O’Reilly scored on a 5-on-3 power play midway through the third period and Semyon Varlamov held on despite giving up a Brandon Saad goal with 2:17 left, as the Avs improved to a league-best 33-1-3 when scoring first (and 31-0-2 when leading after two).
There was little chance of Raanta feeling too comfortable in this one. His first start since Jan. 28 — he wasn’t hurt, he was just waiting his turn and waiting out the Olympic break — came in one of the biggest games of the season for the Hawks. Colorado entered the night one point behind the Hawks with 17 games to go, and is their likeliest first-round opponent. A leg up in the race for home-ice advantage was at stake.
So it was a surprising decision by Hawks coach Joel Quenneville to start Raanta. Even Colorado coach Patrick Roy didn’t entirely believe it, suggesting Quenneville might pull a fast one and start Crawford at the last minute.
But Crawford was pulled at the Pepsi Center after giving up three first-period goals on Nov. 19 — that was Raanta’s NHL debut — and Quenneville wasn’t pleased with Crawford’s performance last Tuesday in a 4-2 loss to the Avalanche at the United Center. The Hawks entered Wednesday’s game with just one win in four tries against Colorado — and it was Raanta who got that win, 7-2, on Dec. 27.
“We don’t like our record,” Quenneville said. “And we’re making a change.”
But as quickly as Quenneville opened the door to a goaltender controversy, he closed it. When asked if that comment meant he had any doubts about using Crawford in a potential first-round matchup with the Avs, he said, “Not at all. Not at all. Not at all.”
There’s also no concern or controversy among the goalies themselves. Crawford knows he’s the No. 1, and is getting the overwhelming majority of the starts, including the past 10. And Raanta knows he has to get his work in during practice, trying to stay sharp for the few times he is called upon — and in case he’s needed on an emergency basis in the playoffs.
Raanta echoed Crawford’s comments on Tuesday about how good of a working relationship the two have, and how they push each other much like Ray Emery and Crawford did last season.
“It’s nice to get to know Crow a little bit better all the time,” Raanta said. “He has a good sense of humor, so it’s nice for me, because I usually try to do things with a little bit of humor. You try to learn all the time what he’s doing when he’s playing, so he’s a good mentor to me.”
Regardless of the stakes, Raanta was just excited to get back into a game — especially one of such magnitude.
“Well, every game is big for me, and for the team, of course,” he said. “But it’s nice to play these kinds of games. It’s not such a long time anymore [until] the playoffs start, so we have to start getting our game a little bit better, and start taking points, and start playing a good 60 minutes and get good wins and nice scores. That’s our main thing.”