Inside Kevin Lankinen’s journey from tireless playoff observer to Blackhawks’ starting goalie

For weeks, Lankinen watched in person as the NHL’s best goaltenders played huge playoff games. Then he spent all autumn implementing what he learned into his own style.

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Kevin Lankinen earned his first two NHL wins Friday and Sunday against the Red Wings.

AP Photos

For 18 days in the NHL’s playoff bubble last summer, Blackhawks goalie Kevin Lankinen observed, analyzed and learned.

The Hawks’ fourth-string goalie at the time, he knew he never would hit the ice himself. So he made the experience into a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to watch many of the best goalies in the world play, one after another.

‘‘Not just one game, not just your team, but all the teams — and on TV and at the arena,’’ Lankinen said. ‘‘That was a huge learning lesson for me.’’

Five months later, Lankinen has risen from fourth-stringer to starter. He made his NHL debut last week and earned his first two victories Friday and Sunday, saving 55 of 58 shots against the Red Wings.

His bright personality, steadfast self-belief and well-rounded skills have made him an instant hit on a team desperately searching for a spark at the position.

‘‘He has a quiet confidence to him that you love to see in a goaltender,’’ coach Jeremy Colliton said. ‘‘He plays under control, but he is athletic, as well.

‘‘Each time he goes up a level, there’s always going to be a bit of an adjustment to getting comfortable. But he seems to feel like he belongs, and that’s sometimes half the battle for young goalies trying to break through.’’

Lankinen, a 25-year-old Finn who made the jump to North America in 2018 and played the last two seasons primarily in Rockford, might not have had such confidence if he was put in this role last January.

But 2020, a horrible year for most people, was a good one for Lankinen.

‘‘It’s been crazy, but...I always like to think about, ‘OK, what can you learn from this?’ ’’ he said. ‘‘And there has been so much to learn from everything.’’

From the lockdowns and quarantines, Lankinen learned to maximize his workouts — he says he’s stronger, faster and more agile than ever — and refresh his mindset.

And from three weeks trapped in the bubble in Edmonton, Alberta, Lankinen learned from a laundry list of NHL goalies. Corey Crawford, Marc-Andre Fleury, Robin Lehner, Mikko Koskinen, Mike Smith and Philipp Grubauer all came to mind.

‘‘I wanted to see, [for] certain goalies, how they play every single night and how they do warmups and what their habits are like,’’ Lankinen said. ‘‘On TV, you always see what’s happening when the situation is on your end; you see the guys following the puck.

‘‘But I wanted to see what happens off the puck, too. How [do] they track and how do they read the play? What’s their demeanor like when the puck is not in their end?’’

So every day, Lankinen and a contingent of fellow prospects made the pilgrimage to Rogers Place to observe the wall-to-wall schedule of games from the Hawks’ team suite.

Despite 154 games of pro experience, Lankinen never had played a minute in the NHL, so his dedicated postseason viewing opened his eyes to a new level.

‘‘One thing that stuck with me is that the NHL is so fast that you have to be a really good skater as a goalie,’’ he said. ‘‘You have to be able to beat passes on your feet and move around. It’s not just about being a big body on the puck because the puck is going all over the place, so you have to make reads. . . . That all comes out of the footwork.’’

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Lankinen worked to improve his footwork and play-reading this offseason.

Getty

He noticed, for example, how different Lehner and Fleury managed their respective starts for the Knights. Lehner sat deep in his crease, relying on his positioning and ‘‘just waiting for guys to come at him.’’ Fleury challenged shooters aggressively, relying on his athleticism. Both had great success.

Lankinen took mental notes all the while, then integrated the small details he liked most into his own approach after leaving the bubble and resuming his training this fall.

‘‘There’s always something to learn from every goalie, but you don’t want to be like this guy or that guy,’’ he said. ‘‘You want to take the best things out of here and there and adapt what suits you best.’’

It turned out his offseason training provided an opportunity to study another playoff hero. Under new goalie coach Marko Torenius, Lankinen practiced alongside Blue Jackets goalie Joonas Korpisalo, whose absurd .941 save percentage in the 2020 postseason led the league.

Together, Lankinen and Korpisalo prioritized two skills: reading plays and footwork — Lankinen’s biggest playoff takeaways. Lankinen also asked Korpisalo, a close friend since age 15, all about the NHL.

‘‘You get that guy who’s been there and who has gone through the same path and can tell you mental stuff,’’ Lankinen said. ‘‘Just being [someone] you can talk to is one thing, but . . . when you’re skating [with] a guy day in and day out, you see all of his habits. You pick the best habits he has and try to implement that to your game.’’

When Lankinen reported to training camp this winter, he did so as a far more refined, knowledgeable goalie than the one the Hawks knew previously.

It took only two weeks of camp battles and three games of backup duties until Lankinen’s evolution into an NHL-ready goalie came to light. And that was no surprise to the man himself.

‘‘I feel confident,’’ he said Friday. ‘‘I feel calm. And I feel like my game is right there where it needs to be.’’

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