RALEIGH, NC — This was the goaltender who pushed Henrik Lundqvist to the bench for four straight games midway through the 2016-17 season, when such a thing had never been done before.
This was the goaltender who introduced himself to Rangerstown on the first day of training camp in 2015 by assuring everyone that he was not, “The biggest douchebag in the whole word.”
This was the goaltender who stole Game 1 of the conference semifinals on Wednesday night by holding his badly outplayed club in the match through the first 40 minutes until his teammates struck for the tying goal late in the third period before getting the winner early in overtime.
This was Antti Raanta, the 33-year-old Finn who has been a backup throughout almost all of his career, which included two seasons in New York, and who ascended to the No. 1 spot for Carolina when Freddie Andersen went down with a lower body injury on April 16.
“You’re always thinking, ‘Am I good enough to be playing these games?’, when you haven’t gotten the chance to play these, you know?” Raanta said after his sparkling performance allowed the Hurricanes, after a 2-1 victory on Ian Cole’s OT winner at 3:42, to get a 1-0 jump in the series. “You are always questioning yourself about, ‘What if I get the chance to play?’ ”
Raanta does not have to wonder anymore after he guided the ‘Canes to their seven-game, first-round victory over the Bruins in which he got the first playoff starts of a nine-year career, which had featured 205 regular-season assignments.
He surely does not have to wonder after this one, in which the Rangers dominated the first 38 minutes, but could never build on the 1-0 lead they achieved when Filip Chytil buried Alexis Lafreniere’s two-on-one feed just 7:07 into the match.
Raanta made a brilliant left-pad save on Ryan Strome cutting across the crease less than a minute later. He robbed Chytil from the right porch with a left-pad stretch with 5:30 to go in the period and then flashed the pad on Ryan Reaves’ drive from the slot with a minute to play. There was a big-time save on Kaapo Kakko off a move to the middle in the eighth minute of the second.
“There weren’t a ton of chances but they were glorious ones,” said Cole, whose winner was deflected in off Ryan Lindgren right in front of Igor Shesterkin. “He kept us in the game for two full periods and gave us a chance to get back.
“That’s as much as you can ask from a goalie.”
The Rangers played a near pristine opening 38 minutes. They simplified their game. They minimized their errors, both forced and unforced. They gave nothing away for free, forcing the ‘Canes to come 200 feet just about every time. They protected the middle of the ice and defended like the 1995 Devils.
The Blueshirts had a first-period xGF rate of 77.24 percent They had a second-period rate of 68.31. They had a third-period rate of 31.06. Notice a trend?
It started to get away very late in the second, when the game suddenly opened up wide in a flurry of rush exchanges. The Blueshirts could not jam the genie back into the bottle after that. The ‘Canes got on their relentless forecheck game and the Rangers were stuffed back into a shell.
The Rangers could not organize an attack. They spent multiple shifts in their own end chasing the puck and rarely were able to get it in deep. Raanta did not face his first shot of the third period until 8:40 remained. The Blueshirts cobbled together a sum of four shots in the third and one in OT.
They had done so much through the first two periods, but they hadn’t done enough.
That is partially on them, of course. The Strome line had a tough night, with Artemi Panarin struggling badly while appearing deficient backchecking on Sebastian Aho’s tying goal. The Mika Zibanejad line didn’t get much going. But if not for Raanta, it likely would have been very different.
“I have seen him give us a chance to win every single night,” Aho said of the Finnish netminder, much in the way the Rangers talk about Shesterkin. “I am not surprised with this.
“With Freddie being out, it’s huge.”
Raanta spent two years as Lundqvist’s backup in 2015-16 and 2016-17 during which time he went 27-14-4 with a 2.25 goals-against average, a .921 save percentage and five shutouts. He came to New York from Chicago, where he had become enmeshed in some sort of controversy after he was demoted to the AHL. He made some comments, he thought they were misinterpreted or poorly translated, and when he came to New York he made his famous declaration.
He made another one on Wednesday.