Twice in the first seven minutes of Antti Raanta’s first NHL game in six weeks, the St. Louis Blues rang shots off the post behind him.
“Ah, of course, the best friend,” Raanta said afterward. “It’s good to get that guy into the game.”
Nothing seems to faze Raanta, the Blackhawks’ happy-go-lucky backup goaltender. When he came up from Rockford last season, he stepped right into the top job when Corey Crawford was hurt and was named the league’s rookie of the month. When he made his season debut in October after waiting more than six months between starts, he shut out the Philadelphia Flyers in a stellar 32-save effort.
And after his latest gap between starts — prolonged by Crawford’s hot play and his own ill-timed illness — Raanta made 40 stops in a 4-1 win over the rival Blues, becoming the first Hawks goalie to allow just one goal and make 40 saves since Craig Anderson in 2004.
“That’s the job description for that goaltender,” Joel Quenneville said. “It’s a tough job. Sometimes you’re sitting there for a month, and all of a sudden you’re pressed into a big game. You’ve got to take advantage of the opportunity.”
Raanta, once again, did just that. The post bailed him out a couple times early, but he quickly found his groove.
“Every time you go to the net, you [worry] about how everything is going to go,” Raanta admitted. “The first 10 minutes, I was watching a little bit how it was going. After that, you just go with the flow, and just play the game as the situation comes. You’re not thinking too much — if that guy’s passing, should I go like that. You just take the puck how it’s coming. I felt really good, and hopefully there are lots more games to go.”
There will be. With Crawford in a walking boot and expected to miss two or three weeks after injuring himself at a concert on Monday night, Raanta will go from not playing at all to playing nearly every night, including Friday against Montreal, with Scott Darling likely getting a start here and there. The last time this happened, a little more than a year ago, Raanta admitted to being nervous, joking that he had a nightmare in which he looked up at the scoreboard in Dallas at the start of the game and he was already down 3-0.
This year, he’s more mentally prepared to assume the top job.
“You always want to play the perfect game, and every time somebody scored, it felt like the world was ending,” Raanta said. “Now, it’s a little bit different. You learn something different about yourself.”
Raanta’s two big starts off lengthy layoffs are particularly encouraging given how much he struggled last spring in a similar role. He admitted he’s had to fight off boredom a bit coming to the rink each day, knowing the routine was always the same — a lengthy practice with goaltender coach Jimmy Waite while Crawford skated 20 or 30 minutes and headed off the ice to prepare for the game.
But Raanta credited those practices with keeping him ready — just in case a situation like this one arose.
“Of course, it’s fun to come off the ice after 20 minutes sometimes,” he said with a smile. “But I don’t mind the extra work. It’s always good for yourself. You get in a good condition and you stay sharp all the time. You have to push yourself, because you never know when that chance will come.”