In football, the most important player is the quarterback. But depending on circumstances, the next most important player could be the backup quarterback.
In hockey, the most important player is usually the goalie, and circumstances don’t have to change for the backup goalie to become important … if not critical.
Antti Raanta, the still-young NHL veteran goalie, is the new No. 1 for two-to-three weeks, with Lundqvist sidelined by a hip injury, and the Rangers believe they are in good hands.
“For sure, whether it’s injury or schedule and giving rest, you know that there’s going to be a handful of opportunities for that guy to step up, and he’s got some opportunities now to really be a difference-maker for us as he has been all year,” Rangers captain Ryan McDonagh said.
“He likes to be in that role, and knows the importance of this little stretch here where we’re playing (four) back-to-backs and we might need that timely save. And I just like his confidence out there.”
“He’s been really good since the day he got here and with Hankie out now, he’s our most important guy,” added Mats Zuccarello. “He’s proven time and time that we can trust him. And to everyone in here, it’s like having Hank. We trust that he’s going to make the saves and we have to do the job in front of him, and try to help out as much as possible.”
It doesn’t hurt a bit that Raanta is an upbeat, happy and friendly man tremendously well-liked among his teammates.
The Rangers have been spoiled to have Martin Biron, then even more so with Cam Talbot, and now with Raanta backing up Lundqvist.
When Lundqvist went down with a vascular injury in 2014-15, Talbot went a remarkable 16-4-3, was in net the night the Rangers clinched the Presidents’ Trophy and fittingly won the Steven McDonald Extra Effort award.
“In today’s game, especially in a year like this year with the condensed schedule, you definitely need two goaltenders who can play,” Rangers coach Alain Vigneault said.
“If you remember a couple years back when Hank got hurt and missed a couple of months (vascular injury), Cam came in and played extremely well, and our whole group played extremely well at that time. So, you know, that’s what we’re expecting from our troops right now, to go out and play a solid game in front of Antti, play a structurally sound game.”
Raanta doesn’t have to be as good as Talbot, or for that long, and this stretch has some wiggle room with the Rangers comfortably in a playoff spot.
There’s more at stake for Raanta, who was the first goalie to ever start four straight while Lundqvist was healthy back in December (going 3-1, allowing three total goals).
He accepts being Lundqvist’s understudy, but he has never completely considered himself a career backup.
“I don’t know, I think it’s just a mindset how you approach it. If you want to be a backup your whole life, you kind of settle down there,” Raanta said. “But I’m still 27 and I still have lots of years, hopefully, in my career. I want to keep on playing and I want to be the No. 1 guy one day. That’s why I come to practice every day, so I can be better like that. I’m not satisfied yet. I think some of the guys who have been in the league 15-20 years and have been six years in a backup role, they’ve pretty much settled down already for that position.
“But for me, I still want to go on. Before I came to the NHL, I was playing 40 games out of 60 in the Finnish league. It’s pretty fun when you get that 15 games in a row and you just come to the rink and you’re just playing. You don’t have to think about anything. But when you’re a backup and playing a couple times a week, or once every two weeks, it’s a lot different. You start thinking about way too much stuff. So that’s why it’s much easier to be the No. 1 guy. You don’t have to think; you just play.
“Hopefully I can find that way sometime again. When you have somebody like Hank in front of you, it’s not that easy to take the No. 1 spot, but I try to work every day so I can be someday the No. 1 guy.”
For now, though, his role is clear and right in front of him as Lundqvist rests and heals and looks to get back for the final stretch of the season. Raanta was fabulous in a win at Detroit Sunday, and could hardly be blamed for a 3-2 loss to Tampa Bay Monday. His record sits at 14-7-0 with a 2.29 goals-against average and .921 save percentage.
And he’s looking forward to this extended play time – with the Rangers coming off the back-to-back set – and another one Friday-Saturday, then two more games in a row on the 21st and 22nd against the rival Devils and Islanders.
“Sometimes you play one game in two weeks and just feel great all the time,” Raanta said, “and sometimes you play a couple of games in a row and you kind of, first you feel great and the second you’re kind of trying to find a good feeling again. But, of course when you get more games in a row, you get that feeling going, you get that mindset going. It’s going to be easier.
“Still, the thing I’m trying to do is get two points every night. We still have a chance to climb a little bit and we’re going to try to do that, and hopefully have a good stretch of games here.”
Lundqvist, who hurt his hip early in a game in Florida March 7 – and made 38 saves in a tremendous performance the remainder of the victory – sounded as if he hoped to be back at some point during the Rangers three games/four nights trip to California starting March 25. After that trip, the Rangers will have five games remaining.
He has appreciated having a dependable backup all these years.
“I think it could be the difference and it will be the difference when you have a guy behind you who can win a lot of games — not only to work with and compete against in practice, but to be able to help the team to win a lot of games,” Lundqvist said. “In the end, you look at the standings, and it makes a huge difference.
“Antti will get a lot of ice time now, obviously, and he deserves it. So I’ll just do my thing here, do the rehab and try not to force anything.”
And while Raanta wants to someday be a No. 1, he knows that time is not now.
“I don’t try to be Hank,” Raanta said. “I just try to be myself. Hank’s been the No. 1 guy here a long time. You know, he’s probably got a couple of weeks out now. It’s not going to change anything. We’re going to have eight games and four back-to-backs in those eight games, so I know every time when I play, it’s a big thing for me to show what I can do. That’s what I’ll try to do right now. Every game is a new challenge and I just try to be my best, and do the things I’ve been doing all season.”
Which has been more than good enough, and more than enough to earn the Rangers’ trust.