The New York Rangers have now lost six home games in a row, with their latest defeat at Madison Square Garden coming on Friday against the Florida Panthers - but don't blame Antti Raanta for the mounting losses.
Despite Aleksander Barkov going backhand shelf - the only goal Raanta gave up in a shootout that lifted the Panthers to a 4-3 win - the Rangers goaltender could actually be credited for New York getting a point out of the game at all. After goals by Mats Zuccarello and J.T. Miller in the first five minutes of the game, the Rangers all but went to sleep for two-plus periods. New York's lull allowed Florida to surge ahead before Zuccarello's second of the night - midway through the third period - sent the contest to overtime.
While Raanta took a third loss in four games - two by one goal - since taking over in net for the injured Henrik Lundqvist, his 34-save performance, including a breathtaking stop on Jonathan Huberdeau in overtime, illustrated why the Rangers have such confidence in a backup filling in for a legend.
"Every time he plays, he plays really well for us," Zuccarello told theScore. "He gives us a good chance to win. It's really nice to have him there. We have the same feeling when he's in goal as with Hank. It's safe and calm, and it's good to have goalies like that. I wouldn't say they have the same style, but they give us the same feeling, the calmness in the team that we know we have a good one back there."
How good? Raanta's .921 save percentage this season is eight points better than Lundqvist's and only five behind reigning Vezina Trophy winner Braden Holtby. Granted, Raanta has made only 22 starts, tying his career high, but you can only stop the shots you face. Raanta has done a good job of that, and given the Rangers the ability to avoid having to feel like they need to rush Lundqvist back, even if the Swede's recovery from a lower-body injury that was projected to keep him out two-to-three weeks is going better than expected.
Having previously backed up another star goalie, Corey Crawford, in Chicago, Raanta knows that no matter how well he plays, he will cede the starting duties as soon as Lundqvist is healthy. That won't change anything about the way he works, just as this run hasn't. It's part of that calm demeanor, but also the mindset necessary to succeed in a role in which there are only a handful of opportunities each season to make a real contribution on the ice.
"You always have to be ready," Raanta said. "If it's not your start, you still have to prepare yourself. You can't come to the games and just eat hot dogs and chill."
Raanta has one more year on his deal with the Rangers before reaching unrestricted free agency. He'll be 29 then - in his prime, but yet to be a full-time starter. It will be an interesting juncture in the Finn's career, having played admirably while mostly watching two of the best in the game - which is experience-building in its own way.
"You always try to watch different situations in the game and how they will do it, and sometimes you think how maybe I would do it a little differently or like that," Raanta said. "Crawford and Hank, both are really competitive. I remember Crawford was one of the best in the league to make the timely saves ... Hank, if you've been 10 years and every year 20 or more wins, he's doing something right - his work ethic is No. 1 in the league, probably, so I try to follow pretty much everywhere he goes and get that patience and challenge like he does, challenging always the shooters."
That was what Raanta did to stop Huberdeau on the two-on-one in overtime that gave the Rangers a chance to pull out a win Friday, even if his teammates ultimately failed. He'll get some more action before Lundqvist returns, and each time Raanta is in the crease, New York will remain confident, knowing that even with Lundqvist injured, there's still a steady presence there.
"He's just a happy-go-lucky guy that comes here, works real hard, and does the extra that a backup needs to do," Rangers coach Alain Vigneault said. "He was here (on an off day) stretching, doing a little bit of extra. I like his attitude. I like his mindset. He comes here, he tries to get better, and in my estimation, he's certainly done that since he's been with our team."