Raanta makes Vigneault look like a genius


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Antti Raanta turns aside Artem Anisimov in a 26-save shutout as the Rangers won 1-0 on Nick Holden’s overtime winner over the Blackhawks. AP Photo via Getty Images courtesy NYRangers.

With the Rangers visiting Chicago for a pivotal back-to-back Original 6 showdown between two good teams, coach Alain Vigneault rolled the dice. Liking what he saw from steady backup Antti Raanta, he went back to the former Blackhawk. Raanta made him look like a genius in backstopping the Rangers to a well earned 1-0 overtime shutout of the Hawks at United Center.

The 27-year old Finnish goalie who was tossed aside by the Hawks for current backup Scott Darling turned aside all 26 shots in improving to 7-1-0 on the season. Considering that it came on the heels of a 17 save performance in a 2-1 win over Winnipeg, Raanta got the job done in consecutive starts while a slumping Henrik Lundqvist rested. It would be earth shattering if he wasn’t back in net for the Devils this Sunday night at MSG.

Normally, Vigneault will have his two goalies split back-to-back situations. But he went with his instinct and it proved correctly. As much as I get him for in game decisions, let’s give the coach some credit. He made a move that some were skeptical over. However, they must’ve forgot about the time when the same coach in his first year behind the Ranger bench played Cam Talbot for a few starts due to a similar slump from Lundqvist.

In truth, there is nothing wrong with giving Lundqvist some time to work with goalie coach Benoit Allaire. His game hasn’t been consistent. Besides, Vigneault doesn’t want to start the franchise netminder more than 60 games. That might even be pushing it. With Lundqvist getting older, he’s hinted at wanting to keep his number of starts in the mid-50’s. A fresh Henrik is the Rangers’ best shot next Spring.

At the moment, it’s no secret he’s been fighting it. A 2.55 goals-against-average and .912 save percentage aren’t King-like. Neither have some of the goals he’s been giving up. Sometimes, a mental break is needed. Lundqvist has always proven he can respond with improved play. It’s why he’s considered one of the game’s best.

When I found out Vigneault was sticking with Raanta, I wasn’t that upset. Maybe it’s just intuition. Since replacing Talbot as the backup, Raanta has proven fully capable of filling in for Lundqvist. This season, he’s been at his best. In winning again, his GAA is down to 1.83 and save percentage up to .939 with his first shutout this season.

One thing Vigneault pointed out in the post game was that in this league, you need two goalies to be successful. Somewhat astonishingly, Ranger backups have posted a higher win percentage since the start of 2011-12, which also happened to be Lundqvist’s best when he won the Vezina. That season under former coach John Tortorella, he posted career bests in wins (39), GAA (1.97) and save percentage (.929) while leading the Blueshirts to the East’s best record. He carried them to the Eastern Conference Final before losing to the Devils in six games.

With Lundqvist backing up for a second straight night, Raanta gave a great show along with former AHL teammate Darling. Neither allowed a goal in regulation. Darling was the busier of the two making 36 saves. Raanta was just as good finishing with 26 including a couple of big ones against the vaunted Hawks’ offense. One highlighted included a sprawling stack of the pads on a dangerous chance while another was a header late in regulation to deny gifted Russian Artemi Panarin.

A nice development has been the strong play of a newly formed checking line. Centered by Oscar Lindberg with Jesper Fast and Marek Hrivik, they put together a second straight good performance. The cohesive trio are defensively responsible with Vigneault able to trust them enough to keep sending them out as one of three lines he rolled after cutting down in the final period. They had some excellent shifts with strong puck possession and forcing Darling into some difficult stops like a Lindberg high riser that caromed out to Fast, who had his stick lifted. Lindberg and Fast combined for 13 shots. Hrivik registered one shot and had four attempts.

With Brandon Pirri continuing to see his ice-time reduced, he might become the odd man out when Rick Nash returns. It’s clear that Vigneault doesn’t trust him defensively. If Pirri isn’t producing offense, he’s useless. He continues to fire blanks and had the least amount of ice-time (10:17 in 14 shifts). Nicklas Jensen played his second straight game and was more noticeable going to the net in 16 shifts (11:05) which included 1:25 on the power play.

The Hawks had an apparent goal from Marian Hossa reversed following a successful coach’s challenge from Vigneault. The controversial play happened midway through the third when Hossa beat Raanta with a wrist shot. However, Vigneault felt strongly that it was offside. Replays showed it was much closer. But he was proven right with Hossa’s right skate up in the air just ahead of the play. He couldn’t believe it. They got it right. But you have to wonder if this is why they have the challenge system. It benefited the Rangers.

The Rangers were the more aggressive team outshooting the Blackhawks 13-7 in the third. They went for it more while the Hawks seemed content to play for three-on-three overtime. In the first minute, Derek Stepan made a great read. At the end of his shift with Chris Kreider and Ryan McDonagh, he gained the Chicago zone and waited for McDonagh to change.

On came Nick Holden. Stepan made a backhand turnaround pass that led Holden in on a breakaway. With Kreider on the other side, Holden let go of a perfect wrist shot that beat Darling for the overtime winner at 55 seconds. The Rangers poured off the bench to congratulate Holden, who has turned into quite a steal. It’s hard to believe GM Jeff Gorton only gave up a fourth round pick to Colorado for him.

It was nice to see a good guy who has overachieved in Vigneault’s system get rewarded. Holden sported the Broadway Hat in the locker room. He is up to four goals which leads all Ranger defensemen. A line of 4-9-13 with a plus-12 rating in all 29 games is more than anyone could’ve imagined. He has been a great fit on the second pair with Marc Staal. Gorton deserves plenty of credit for his off-season. He might even be up for executive of the year.

The win moved the Rangers back into first in the crowded Metropolitan Division. With a record of 19-9-1 and 39 points, they’re two up on the Penguins, who have played two less games. With the Blue Jackets winning again (4-1 over Red Wings), they’re up to 36 and are a point up on the Capitals and Flyers. The Devils suffered their first home loss in regulation losing to the Blues 4-1. They remain at 30 with the first Battle of Hudson at MSG Sunday.

BONY 3 Stars:

3rd Star-Nick Holden, NYR (overtime winner at 55 seconds-4th of season, 3 shots, 6 attempts, 2 hits, +1 in 28 shifts-21:12 including 18:55 EV, 1:12 PP, 1:05 SH)

2nd Star-Scott Darling, CHI (36 saves)

1st Star-Antti Raanta, NYR (26 save shutout)

Notes: Afterwards, Raanta and Darling shared a nice moment during the game’s three stars. They shook hands and gave each other kudos. They did play together in the AHL. … Kevin Klein totaled 13:43 in 18 even strength shifts. Brady Skjei got 14:58 in 20 shifts including 43 seconds of power play. … McDonagh led all skaters with 26:33. In 31 shifts, the Ranger captain had seven blocked shots and three hits. Partner Dan Girardi was steady throughout in 21:36 (28 shifts) including four blocks, five attempts and two hits. … Rangers went 0-for-2 on the power play while the Blackhawks were 0-for-1 despite some close calls late in the second. … Teams only totaled 29 hits with the Hawks registering a paltry 10. … Face-offs were 28-28 with Stepan a dominant 15-and-6. Former Ranger Artem Anisimov went 11-and-10 while logging 24:12 in 27 shifts with captain Jonathan Toews still out. Panarin got 23:02 but was caught out with Hossa and Duncan Keith on Holden’s winner.

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About Derek Felix

Derek Felix is sports blogger whose previous experience included two stints at ESPN as a stat researcher for NHL and WNBA telecasts. The Staten Island native also worked behind the scenes for MSG as a production assistant on New Jersey Devil games. An avid New York sports fan who enjoys covering events, writing, concerts, movies and the outdoors, Derek has scored Berkeley Carroll basketball games since 2006 and provided an outlet for the Park Slope school's student athletes. Hitting Back gives them the publicity they deserve. From players, coaches to administrators, it's a first class program. In his free time, he also attends Ranger games and is a loyal St. John's alum with a sports management degree.
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