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Raanta impresses in second NHL start

GLENDALE, Ariz. -- No one knew exactly what the Chicago Blackhawks had when goaltender Antti Raanta was called up Nov. 17 to replace injured backup Nikolai Khabibulin.

Raanta owned a good resume after coming off an impressive year in Finland, where he was named the top player in both the regular season and postseason. But that was in Finland; the only way to know for sure if his talent would carry over to the NHL was to see him in action.

The 24-year-old undrafted rookie showed glimpses of his ability in a relief appearance at Colorado on Nov. 19 and in his first NHL start on Wednesday at Calgary -- a game before which he admitted to having nightmares.

However, the Coyotes are a step up in competition, especially on home ice, and Raanta was playing behind a Blackhawks team that was closing out a seven-game, 12-day trip. Raanta rose to the challenge, aided by his team opening a 3-0 lead after the first period, and made 31 saves to help Chicago prevail 5-2 and extend its winning streak to six games.

"It was much easier to play today than in Calgary, right from the beginning when I had a couple of big saves," Raanta said. "In the second period I may have had a little bit too much energy, but it was a pretty good game and I feel good about the whole 60 minutes."

Raanta faced his biggest test in the second period, when Phoenix turned up the heat in an attempt to cut into the Hawks' three-goal lead and perhaps catch the defending champs with tired legs.

The Coyotes fired 17 shots on goal and scored twice to cut the margin to 3-2, but Raanta made sure the game didn't get away from the Blackhawks. The turning point occurred when Chicago successfully killed a 66-second two-man advantage for Phoenix. That not only made a statement about the Blackhawks' struggling penalty kill, which ranks among the worst in the league, but also about the ability of the young netminder to stand tall under fire.

"He has poise and doesn't get rattled," said Chicago head coach Joel Quenneville of Raanta. "He waits for the puck to come and does his thing. I also thought his rebound control was effective.

"Killing off that 5-on-3 was a pivotal moment, because if they come through, it's a tie ballgame."

Raanta only faced nine shots in the third period but stopped them all to improve to 2-0.

Chicago returns to action Tuesday and again plays back-to-back games on Thursday and Friday, so time will tell if Quenneville decides to give the rookie another start and Corey Crawford a day off.