By Chris Emma-
CHICAGO (CBS) — He skates off the ice, then sits in his locker space, quiet and unassuming, always a smile on his face.
The cramped locker room in Johnny’s Icehouse was filled with players, team personnel and two dozen reporters, yet Antti Raanta seemed so comfortable — as he always does. One reporter held the microphone out and asked if he would be in net for tonight’s game in New Jersey. Raanta replied that he didn’t know. It doesn’t faze him either way.
“Some day, you can’t play anymore hockey, and then you think of those days when you were so nervous,” Raanta said. “Live in the moment and have fun.”
Such perspective is remarkable for a 25-year-old playing his second NHL season. Considering his position, it’s even more impressive.
A native of Finland, Raanta can be called upon at any time, with little notice. Tonight, it will be rookie Scott Darling getting his second consecutive start, but Raanta will remain ready as starter Corey Crawford remains out a few more weeks with a foot injury.
“You just have to prepare yourself,” Raanta said. “Sometimes it’s a little bit harder, sometimes it’s a little easier, but you just try to keep yourself ready and just don’t think too much — just go there and have fun.”
On Oct. 21, Raanta recorded his second career shutout, a 32-save blanking of the Philadelphia Flyers. He would pick up losses in his next two starts, allowing three goals each game, and then wouldn’t play for six weeks.
Chicago even sent Raanta to Rockford for a spot start, hoping to keep his head in the game. He made 33 saves and led the Icehogs to a win. To no surprise, he stayed ready to play.
“You just try to keep yourself in a good battling level in practice, and you just try to get it a little like the game for yourself,” said Raanta.
Circumstances suddenly changed last week, when Crawford’s misstep outside a Rise Against concert injured him for two to three weeks. Raanta received the nod as the Blackhawks’ starter.
Even without their Cup-winning netminder, the Blackhawks know they can count on their goaltender. Raanta is 3-2 with a 2.02 goals against average with a .942 save percentage.
“He stepped in right away and filled the void pretty well,” Patrick Kane said. “I think it’s never easy for a backup goaltender, especially when you’re not playing much. It’s a credit to the way Antti has been working in practice. He’s been working very hard, and it seems like it’s paying off for him.”
Added coach Joel Qunneville: “He keeps himself in that ready position.”
But Raanta has competition, even with Crawford out. The rookie Darling has emerged as a reliable goaltender, leaving speculation as to which will stay on the roster when Crawford returns.
The future of Raanta appears to be bright, but it remains to be seen where it will continue. The Blackhawks are financially committed to Crawford through 2020, and Raanta has just one more year left on his contract after this season.
There will surely be demand for Raanta’s services. While he’s happy to be a backup, that’s not his goal.
Still, Raanta doesn’t worry about his future in Chicago.
“You waste your energy if you start thinking too much,” he said. “Everybody wants to play and everybody wants to win, but let’s go one game and one week at a time and think of those things after the season or whenever we have to think those things.”
That seems to summarize the secret to Raanta’s success. He’s not thinking of that next start or next job. It’s all about stopping that next shot.
Some day, when he’s not playing hockey anymore, Raanta will reflect back and be glad he showed up every day with a smile on his face.
Follow Chris on Twitter @CEmma670.