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Fighting for his job, Antti Raanta leads Blackhawks to victory

Antti Raanta isn’t losing his job. It’s being taken from him.

That doesn’t make it any easier.

“I don’t want to give my job away,” Raanta said. “I know I can play at a good level in this league.”

And he has. Whenever he’s been given a chance to play, Raanta has played well. Sunday night’s 2-1 victory over the Calgary Flames, capped by a brilliant third period by Brandon Saad that included the go-ahead goal, was Raanta’s latest solid performance. He made 23 saves.

“I thought he was very good,” Hawks coach Joel Quenneville said. “He did a very good job. Excellent.”

That’s nothing new for Raanta. There also was the shutout of Philadelphia, the 40-save win over St. Louis, the 38-stop victory over Montreal. But when Corey Crawford returns to action, likely this weekend either at Columbus or home against Toronto, Raanta might be the odd-man out, and could be headed to Rockford while Scott Darling — the guy who came out of nowhere — stays in Chicago as the Blackhawks’ backup goaltender.

Darling started the last four games for the Hawks, including three wins and a stellar effort in a loss to the Islanders on Saturday night. And the rookie clearly has climbed ahead of Raanta in Quenneville’s eyes thanks to his size (at 6-6, he’s half a foot taller than Raanta) and surprising poise. Even after his back-to-back wins over the powerful Blues and Canadiens, Raanta was forced to watch Darling play for four straight games.

“It’s even harder when you play good games and get a couple of wins, then you have to sit and wait,” Raanta said. “Sometimes it just goes like that.”

Quenneville keeps calling it a “good problem,” which it certainly is, especially considering how shallow the Hawks were at the position a little more than a year ago. But it’s a bad problem for Raanta, who never expected to head back to the minors after signing a two-year, one-way contract over the summer (he does not need to clear waivers).

The normally ebullient Finn was noticeably downbeat when discussing his situation on Saturday.

“For sure, there are some of those days when you’re a little bit down, and you just think, ‘What should I do better?’” Raanta said. “You can’t start doing that in the locker room. You can’t be there and like just be [whining] because it’s not helping anybody. I just try to be as good a teammate as I can and just try to give all that I’ve got to Scotty. He’s doing great, so it’s hard some days. But that’s just hockey.”

He was much happier after Sunday’s game. He managed to put all that pressure and concern on the backburner, and just play his game.

“I just came to the rink and I was like, now you can go there and play the game and that’s it,” he said. “Maybe [I was feeling the pressure Saturday] after the game, when I started thinking a little bit about this day. But I was feeling really good. I was relaxed. I didn’t want to take that kind of pressure that if I lose the game, or if I let two goals or three goals, that that’s it. Game over.”

On Sunday night, with new Cubs pitcher Jon Lester in attendance, the Hawks snapped out of a sluggish start to take over the third period. Jiri Hudler and Patrick Sharp had traded goals in the second period. Then Saad — shortly after a tremendous one-man effort on a penalty kill — put the Hawks ahead at 12:57 of the third, on a breakaway sprung by a Niklas Hjalmarsson steal and a Jonathan Toews (two assists) setup.

Raanta did the rest. Was it enough to keep his job? Maybe, maybe not. But it’s all he can do.

“If it happens, it happens,” Raanta said. “I’m just trying to be here.”

Email: mlazerus@suntimes.com
Twitter: @marklazerus