- Scott Powers, ESPN Staff Writer
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CHICAGO -- Sports psychology exists partly due to goaltenders.
As physically gifted as a goaltender may be, all it can take is a soft goal to rattle his head. Why a goaltender can stop a shot in one game and miss the same shot in another game can often be traced to confidence. It’s why sports psychologists have dedicated time and written plenty of articles about the mental side of goaltending.
Raanta didn’t receive many opportunities to play prior to the Olympic break, starting only four games in January and February. But in the games he did play, Raanta often had trouble in the opening period. He allowed a total of five first-period goals in his last three starts.
“I think it’s more mentally, a mental thing,” Raanta said this week. “Just try to get your head straight to the first puck when you get in the games. There has been a couple games when the opponent is scoring on the first shot. That is not the start you want. It’s pretty hard to your head. It’s going straight to inside your head and you’re starting to think about it. The whole game is, like, ruined.”
The problem got to the point where he realized it had to be addressed. What he decided to do was treat the start of practices like the start of games. No matter how weak or simple a shot may be from his teammates, he’s looking to block it.
“You try to start to practice the same way like when you try to start the games,” Raanta said. “You try to get all the pucks. It doesn’t matter if it’s a warm-up drill or three against one or three against zero. You just try to start the practice as good as possible and go with it.”
Raanta’s lack of starts didn't help either. He had plenty of time to reflect on the goals he allowed. He tried to utilize the Olympic break to reset his mind.
“I haven’t thought too much in the last two weeks about those things,” Raanta said. “Of course, you try to keep on doing the right things in practice. Like when you get a chance in a game, you try to prove that you can play like that. Like three years ago, I was a backup in the Finnish league. I don’t want to remember those things too much.
“It’s not the easiest job. If you just get your mindset thinking about just the practice, just a couple of games when you get a chance, it’s going to turn out pretty good. Hopefully this couple of weeks break made it good to your head and good to your body. We’ll see how the games are going to be after the break.”
Raanta will likely be given more starts over the Blackhawks’ final 22 regular-season games. The Blackhawks have four sets of back-to-back games and three four-game weeks.
“He’ll get a chance,” coach Joel Quenneville said. “I think with getting back on the ice in practice and getting some shots again he’ll get a few. But he hadn’t played in awhile. At some point, we’ll definitely get him in there not too far away.”
Raanta was at his best this season when he was starting consistently. He got into a rhythm in December when he started 10 games while Corey Crawford was injured. Raanta allowed two or less goals in eight of those starts and had a save percentage of .917 or higher in six games.
Since Crawford returned in early January, Raanta has a 2.75 goals-against average and an .864 save percentage in four games. He saw 81 shots during that period and stopped 70 of them. In his last start Jan. 28, he was pulled in the second period after giving up four goals on 15 shots.
Raanta was optimistic his play would improve with more chances, but he was also complimentary of Crawford. Raanta said he was aiming to play like his fellow goaltender.
“Everything comes if you just do the right things,” Raanta said. “If you keep on working hard, you will get the chance. But Crow, he was really good the last 5-6 games. He saved us a couple of big points on the last road trip. It isn’t an easy job to jump there, but when you get the chance you try to be so good. You try to be as good as Crow and try to help the team to get the two points.”