Antti Raanta picked up two victories on the road, two triumphs in just his first three NHL games played. Corey Crawford did the rest — and also got some much-needed rest.
It’s a small sample size, especially given that Raanta hasn’t been here very long. But in this brief time span, the Blackhawks have something they’ve been looking for all season: stability in goal, no matter who’s in it.
The Blackhawks like their goaltending situation right now, and for good reason. Raanta’s gotten off to a great start in his fledgling NHL career and Crawford’s looking like the Crawford of last season. The team is gobbling up victories because they’re playing an all-around, great team game, and their goaltending is as much a part of that as anything.
“We’re fine,” coach Joel Quenneville said. “Antti coming in and playing two solid games for us, it’s been a good start to his career. He’s helped solidify that situation for us. As we go along, we expect him to get some games here and fit in.”
Raanta will keep getting his opportunities, as Nikolai Khabibulin’s lower-body injury has apparently not progressed much, if at all. There are four back-to-back game sets in December alone, and Quenneville said Raanta could get some starts with those. And Raanta just feels better with every start.
“It’s a learning experience for me, every day,” he said. “After those two games, you get confidence and a good feeling. It’s easier to come to the practice rink. You learn something every day and just try to keep working hard.”
Couple that with Crawford’s play, which has been great as of late, and the Blackhawks are feeling more settled in net. Crawford had some so-so games for a stretch, but was stellar as the circus trip progressed. His game against Vancouver, where he stopped 36 of 37, was one of the highlights; so was Dallas, where he stopped 28 of 29 in regulation and overtime and 10 of 11 in the shootout.
“I feel good, feel, confident in what I’m doing,” Crawford said. “The intensity level has gone up a little bit. I made an adjustment to step out further the last bunch of games, which has helped on tips and screens and point shots that sort of thing. I feel pretty good right now.”
He also feels pretty rested. Crawford started or came in for every Blackhawks game from Oct. 26 through Nov. 27, when Raanta made his first NHL start against the Calgary Flames. He said at the time that the workload wasn’t affecting him. On Monday, however, Crawford admitted the rest has helped.
“It’s definitely good,” he said. “We have a lot of back-to-backs, and it’s definitely helped. It’s a little more energy. (Raanta’s) played well and we’re able to get some wins, and Joel probably won’t be shy to put him in once in a while. It’s only good. It worked well with us last year too with (Ray) Emery, having two guys going. It’s nice to have another guy to step in and do the job.”
Crawford and Emery had as good a rapport off the ice as they had on it. The two were competitive but friendly about it, both working for the big prize that they won last June. Raanta has enjoyed working with Crawford in his brief time here.
“He’s been here many years and he also came from Rockford so he knows what you need to do to come to the NHL and play. He’s been proving that,” Raanta said. “It’s really nice to work with a Stanley Cup-winning goalkeeper. I talk with him every day and learn something every day.”
Crawford’s liked Raanta’s on-ice approach.
“He lets the play come to him,” Crawford said. “Sometimes in your first game you want to try and do maybe a little too much. He’s been good at being in position and letting the play come to him, not looking for saves that aren’t there.”
Will this become another successful one-two goaltending punch like Crawford and Emery had last season? Well, let’s just see how that plays out. Raanta’s had a great debut, but he’s going to have his ups and downs like any other player has in any season. Still, the combo of he and Crawford is working right now, and the Blackhawks will take it.