Ready or not, here comes Antti Raanta

The NHL timetable for Antti Raanta was moved up because of the injury to Nikolai Khabibulin. AP Photo/Nick Wass

Chicago Blackhawks rookie goaltender Antti Raanta did everything he could over the past month and a half to prepare for the NHL.

Raanta put time into watching video, worked to understand the foreign angles of a smaller rink and communicated endlessly with Rockford IceHogs development goaltending coach Andrew Allen about ways to improve.

"He always wants to work," Allen said. "He always wants to do something. We can work with that. He's been really great to work with. I knew that from the get-go."

Despite all the effort, the question remains whether Raanta is ready now to play in the NHL.

The plan wasn't to bring Raanta up this soon. The Blackhawks wanted to ease the 24-year-old Raanta into North American hockey coming over from Finland this season, give him experience playing for the IceHogs in the American Hockey League and eventually bring him up to the NHL.

That plan was voided, though, when Nikolai Khabibulin suffered a lower-body injury on Saturday and was placed on the long-term injured reserve. Raanta's time is here.

"His goal was to come to play in the NHL," Allen said. "It looks like he's going to get that shot. It may have been a little early, but we've prepared him the best we can. I don't think there's ever a perfect time. Ideally he'd get some more experience, but now he's going to get that experience in the NHL and take what he can from that experience."

With the Blackhawks lacking consistency in their backup goaltending so far this season, starting goaltender Corey Crawford possibly being overworked already and the team entering a seven-game road trip, a lot falls on Raanta's glove, stick and pads right from the start. No one, including Raanta, can say for certain whether he's ready now for that challenge, but he is eager for it.

"Of course, it's going to be an exciting thing," Raanta said. "You never know what's going to happen. You just have to go one day at a time and be so good where you can enjoy the moment."

Blackhawks coach Joel Quenneville said he planned on Raanta making his NHL debut during their road trip. The Blackhawks begin the trip against the Colorado Avalanche on Tuesday.

Those who have consistently seen Raanta this season are confident he's an NHL-caliber goaltender. He possesses the quickness, reflexes and mental makeup needed for the job.

"I really do think he can play at that level," Allen said. "The demeanor he has in the net you can't teach. He has the skill set. I think it's a combination of his presence in net, the way he handles himself and his reflexive speed. He's not the biggest goalie, but he plays aggressive because of his size, and he has the speed and reflex ability."

Raanta has displayed those skills at times this season and proven why the Blackhawks and other teams sought his services after he won the regular-season and playoff MVPs of the SM-liiga in Finland last season. He's had six starts where he's held opponents to two or fewer goals for the IceHogs.

"Raanta has played good for the most part," IceHogs coach Ted Dent said. "He's had some really good outings. I think traditionally he's come on strong in the second half of the year once he's gotten into a groove. I think a lot of goalies are like that."

Where some doubt about whether Raanta is prepared now for the NHL comes in is over his inconsistencies in the AHL. He's had some stellar games, but he's also struggled in others and had four games where he's given up four goals.

"There has been like real good games, and then there's been a couple not so good games," Raanta said. "I think every goalie has those games. Of course, it's so exciting to be here now and really get the chance and hopefully get to show a good 60 minutes."

Raanta's play has fluctuated partly because he was adjusting to playing a different style of game. Allen has worked with Raanta on various aspects of protecting the net in a smaller rink.

"He's had to get used to being more comfortable with the angles on the smaller rink," Allen said. "That was the biggest thing. There's more traffic, as well. Guys come down to the net harder. We've been trying to get him the experience of that and getting him comfortable."

Raanta credits Allen for improving in those aspects.

"It has been all the time getting better and better," Raanta said. "I'm getting a little bit better with those angles and everything with that. It's much easier to go to the net and start playing the game. We have worked lot with Andrew Allen in Rockford, so it's getting better all the time."

Raanta got a taste of NHL competition during the Blackhawks' training camp. He was quickly reminded how talented NHL players can be when he first took warm-ups with the Blackhawks shortly after arriving in Chicago on Sunday.

"It's pretty funny to come here and see the warm-ups," Raanta said. "It was like, ‘Whoa,' again. ‘Nice shots, buddies.'

"It's so exciting to be here. Of course, the competition is much harder here. Every day you have to be at your best. That's why you're a goalie, and that's why you want to be a No. 1 every time."