Will Antti Raanta Be Ready the Second Time Around?

Steve Silverman@@profootballboyFeatured ColumnistMarch 11, 2014

Chicago Blackhawks' goalie Antti Raanta (31), of Finland, watches the game-winning goal in a shootout by St. Louis Blues' Kevin Shattenkirk in an NHL hockey game Saturday, Dec. 28, 2013, in St. Louis. (AP Photo/Bill Boyce)
Bill Boyce/Associated Press

It's often much tougher for NHL goalies the second time around. 

Antti Raanta is about to find out if that is true. Earlier in the season, Raanta was called up from the Chicago Blackhawks' minor-league affiliate in Rockford to serve as their backup netminder when veteran goalie Nikolai Khabibulin went down for the season with a shoulder injury.

Those needs were exacerbated when Corey Crawford suffered a lower-body injury that kept him out of action for several weeks during the first half of the season. Raanta played in 19 games for the Blackhawks (starting 17 of them) and built a 12-2-3 record with a 2.40 goals-against average and a .904 save percentage.

Those are decent numbers and the Blackhawks were relatively happy with his performance, in large part because Raanta played well enough to keep the team winning.

But once Crawford got healthy again, he virtually began playing every night. Raanta has not played since a Jan. 28 home game against the Calgary Flames.

That was not a very good game for Raanta.

He allowed four goals on 15 shots against the lowly Flames and was replaced by Crawford. The Blackhawks would go on to lose that game 5-4, and Raanta has not played since.

When looked at through the prism of that game, it looks like the Blackhawks have kept him on the bench because they were afraid that he would get shelled again. However, that's merely coincidental and it's not true.

Crawford got healthy, the NHL took a two-plus week hiatus because of the Olympics and Raanta simply has manned the backup role.

However, that's going to change this week. Head coach Joel Quenneville told the Chicago Sun-Times that Raanta would get back into the lineup this week, and that he could be expected to play several games.

Quenneville quantified that remark Tuesday, saying Raanta would get the start when the Blackhawks go to Denver Wednesday to play the Colorado Avalanche.

That's a big statement in and of itself. The Blackhawks are desperately trying to hold off the Avs for second place in the Central Division right now. If the standings don't change by the end of the season, the Blackhawks would face the Avs in the first round of the playoffs, with the Blackhawks holding home-ice advantage.

If Quenneville was worried about Raanta, his first game back in net would not be against the team that is breathing down the Blackhawks' neck. Instead, he could have given Raanta a start against Nashville (March 14) or Detroit (March 16). The Avs (199 goals) are more explosive than either the Predators (156 goals) or Red Wings (171 goals), and both of those games are at the United Center.

So, Raanta should not go into his assignment thinking that his team has lost confidence in him. He can erase that thought from his mind. However, he's going to have to be on top of his game to contend with Colorado's speed and sharp shooters. He's going to have to be at his best to hold Matt Duchene (21 goals, 60 points), Gabriel Landeskog (19 goals, 52 points), Nathan MacKinnon (22 goals, 51 points) and Ryan O'Reilly (24 goals, 51 points) in check.

Raanta was solid when he played earlier in the year, and he was quite popular among fans who have found fault with Crawford. However, Raanta is far from a proven commodity. He had success in his first blush with the Blackhawks, nothing more and nothing less.

Now, he gets another opportunity. This chance comes at a much more critical point of the season. If he proves himself this time around, the Blackhawks will have secured their No. 2 goalie position for the future and may have found a legitimate challenger to Crawford.

If not, the Blackhawks may slip down the playoff ladder, rather than reascending to the top.