ST. LOUIS – A year ago at this time, Antti Raanta was sitting on a couch on the opposite side of the Atlantic Ocean.
It was a big couch, but not as big as the ocean. Still, it was comfortable, which allowed Raanta to park in front of his television and watch the Blackhawks’ run to a Stanley Cup title.
“Good seats,” Raanta said with a laugh.
Anyone with a high-definition TV knows the feeling.
Now, Raanta has an especially good seat. Front row, near center ice. And he gets paid to sit there.
No wonder the 24-year-old Finland native is smiling as if he just won a dream vacation.
“Of course, my first NHL playoffs,” Raanta said. “It’s really nice.”
It’s a lot of things, as Hawks fans know well. Yes, the postseason can be really nice, and it also can be really infuriating, really uplifting, really terrifying or really perfect. Usually all in the same series.
Most of all, the playoffs can be really unpredictable.
That’s why it was important to check in on Raanta before the Hawks played the St. Louis Blues on Thursday in Game 1 of the Western Conference quarterfinals. As the backup goaltender, he was the only player on the team who was active and in uniform but would not be expected to log one second of ice time.
Nothing about this situation was controversial. Corey Crawford is the Hawks’ clear-cut No. 1 starter in net and has a Stanley Cup championship on his résumé, and it would take a serious injury or a Lindsay Lohan-caliber meltdown in order for Raanta to leave his perch on the bench.
So Raanta must have arrived to the Scottrade Center hoping not to play, right? Because, if he did leave his spot on the bench, that would have meant something terrible had happened to Crawford?
“Well, of course,” Raanta said. “You never want anything to happen, but you never know. Hockey is a fast game and there are lots of things that can happen. But I don’t want to start thinking those things.
“I just try to go to practice and be the best goalie and try to push Corey higher and higher. Hopefully, Corey will play great games like he was playing last year. Hopefully, I can help the team in practice.
“Well, you never know what happens. So I don’t want to start thinking too much, those things.”
It was too late.
Raanta was thinking about the possibility of leaving the bench to become the Hawks’ most important player at a moment’s notice. He was thinking about his confidence in himself to rise to the occasion if necessary. He was thinking about his rookie regular season, which included some good and some bad as he posted a 13-5-4 record with a 2.71 goals-against average in 25 appearances.
“Always, you can think of [your] games and what you can do better,” Raanta said. “Maybe December was a little bit better than the last couple months. Maybe my game was a little bit better in that time. There were a little bit of ups and downs in the last few games.
“But it’s still the first year. I don’t know if I can make those mistakes, but you have to make mistakes to learn more. … There are still lots of things to do to be at the top level here. But we are in the playoffs, so I can’t be too disappointed.”
Instead, Raanta can be happy.
This time of year is the exact reason why Raanta signed a one-year deal with the Hawks last summer. He had thrived in Finland and might have been able to receive more playing time on a less talented team, but he joined the Hawks because of all of the postseason fun he had seen on TV from his couch.
“I knew that this organization was at a high level and there’s always a chance to go all the way,” Raanta said. “That was one of the reasons why I picked this team. Now, I have been here almost a year, [and] it has been just as great as I was thinking. Everything – the whole organization – everybody has been helping me and everybody has been trying to make my job as easy as possible.”
But now Raanta has a hard assignment.
Sit still, but stay sharp.
In the meantime, enjoy the front-row seat.
• Shaw Media sports columnist Tom Musick can be reached at email@example.com and on Twitter @tcmusick.