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Backup goalie Antti Raanta excited before first NHL start

Updated: December 30, 2013 12:02PM

CALGARY, Alberta — The last thing goalie Antti Raanta wanted to do Wednesday was spend all day thinking about the fact that his whole career had led to this
moment, his first NHL start. Or about how there was no way to know how long Nikolai Khabibulin would be out and, therefore, how long his audition might last.

So Raanta planned to do what just about every player does in the empty hours
between the morning skate and the game: Take a nap — if possible.

‘‘Of course, it’s a big day for me,’’ Raanta, 24, said
before the Blackhawks took on the Calgary Flames at the Saddledome, the fifth game of their seven-city circus trip. ‘‘But I don’t want to start thinking too much and start taking on too much pressure. If I do that, I will see it on the scoreboard. And that’s not the plan.’’

That’s easier said than done. Raanta clearly was excited and energized about making his first start, but he also was well aware about how important first impressions are, particularly for goalies. Khabibulin — who struggled mightily before he was hurt — is on long-term injured reserve with a lower-body injury, and coach Joel Quenneville has given no indication of what his long-term plan is for Corey ­Crawford’s backup.

The Hawks are high on Raanta, a league and playoff most valuable player last season in Finland, and his ultimate future won’t be decided on just a couple of starts. But he also can force Quenneville’s hand if he’s consistently sharp right out of the gate.

‘‘I want to do it straight-away good and play a good game,’’ said Raanta, who made 14 saves on 16 shots in relief of Crawford in his NHL debut last week in Colorado. ‘‘You never know what ­happens, but that’s the plan — that straight from the first puck to the last puck, be as good as possible.’’

‘‘Organizationally, we’re happy to have him,’’ Quenne-
ville said.

‘‘It’s not a one-game audition. I know the scrutiny the goalies have is a different bubble, but hopefully he gets off to a great start and goes from there.’’

Raanta needed only to look across the ice at Flames goalie Reto Berra for incentive. Berra has played in nine of 10 games since his brilliant 42-save NHL debut in a 3-2 overtime victory against the Hawks on Nov. 3. That won’t happen for Raanta — Crawford’s job obviously isn’t in jeopardy — but he does have a chance to seize the backup job for the long term.

Flames coach Bob Hartley pointed to Berra’s debut as reason to take Raanta seriously, showing that inexperience doesn’t mean incompetence. But Raanta’s teammates also will have his back in the early going. While Quenneville said the Hawks won’t change their style or scheme to protect the rookie, defenseman Johnny Oduya said it’s only natural to circle the wagons.

‘‘You automatically do that a little bit,’’ Oduya said. ‘‘Guys usually try to tighten up the defensive game a little bit. Not necessarily because you don’t trust him, but more that you want him to have a fair chance coming in, you want him to be comfortable.’’

Raanta said his experience in the game against the Avalanche helped get rid of some of the jitters and concerns any rookie feels.

‘‘There were a couple of good saves, and I knew after
the game that I can play at this level,’’ he said. ‘‘But, of course, there are still lots of things to come. We’ll see what happens.’’


Twitter: @marklazerus

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