Blackhawks' Raanta blanks Kings

Jerry Bonkowski, The Sports Xchange
The SportsXchange

CHICAGO -- Joel Quenneville has a big problem on his hands, yet it is the kind of issue every NHL coach would love to face.
With starting goalie Corey Crawford due to return to action later this week, the Chicago Blackhawks coach is prepared to sit Crawford's fill-in, Antti Raanta.
Complicating the decision is Raanta's 10-1-3 record since replacing Crawford. Raanta's latest outstanding effort led to a 1-0 win against the Los Angeles Kings on Monday at the United Center.
It was the Blackhawks' first shutout of the season, as well as the first shutout in the short NHL career of Raanta, a 24-year-old from Finland.
"I thought (Raanta has) done a great job, coming in as a young kid, unproven and getting 10 or 11 starts in a row, big games, important games," Quenneville said. "Consistency is what you look for in any player, particularly with the way goaltenders get scrutinized as far as their efficiency. He's done a great job.
"He just came in here and gave us something to think about going forward, and a real good opportunity knowing that he took advantage of where he's at, and I think he really enhanced his position in the organization, as well."
For now, Quenneville can rest easy knowing that he will have Raanta in reserve with Crawford returning.
"It's nice to see Corey come back," Quenneville said. "Let's get him in the groove, as well. It's a nice situation. (Raanta) really, really helped solidify something that looked concerning at the time."
However, what about when 41-year-old veteran Nikolai Khabibulin returns from the lower-body injury that has sidelined him since mid-November?
Khabibulin isn't due to come back until sometime during the Blackhawks' extended seven-game road trip. The trek begins in late January, and coupled with the NHL's break for the Winter Olympics, doesn't have the Blackhawks returning to Chicago until March 1.
"We'll see how that all plays out," Quenneville said. "Khabi's not close to coming back, so we'll see what we have with three goalies. We'll be looking at what goes on in that road trip and then make a decision."
Raanta was generally soft-spoken during his four-week tenure with the Blackhawks, but he showed significant emotion after Monday's game, pumping his fist in the air while skating off the ice and reveling in the cheers from appreciative Blackhawks fans.
"(It was a) good 60 minutes," Raanta said. "There were a couple times in the last two minutes, I was like, 'Oh my god, it's like the same kind of thing like last time we played against L.A. and they're going to score in the last two minutes.'
"But the guys were playing really, really nice in front of me, and they were blocking the shots all of the time. I think I got three or four saves in the last period, so they made my job pretty easy."
The game was a significant departure from the previous three games for the Blackhawks, a stretch in which they scored 17 goals.
"Who (scored) first was important," Quenneville said. "Some games are going to be low-scoring affairs, and we have to be willing to play that game. We've had a stretch of games where the pucks were going in for us on the other end real good, but you have to play that type of game that's in front of you."
Left wing Brandon Saad's goal at 7:05 of the first period stood up for the deciding tally as Chicago (28-7-7) won for the fifth time in seven games.
Los Angeles (25-11-4) dropped its third consecutive game.
"We have to be better, that's it," Kings defenseman Matt Greene said. "We have to beat these guys if we want to get out of our conference (in the playoffs), so we've got to start doing it right now."
Saad was on the receiving end of a perfect crossing pass through the goal crease from fellow left winger Bryan Bickell. A quick wrist shot resulted in Saad's 14th goal of the season, as he beat out-of-position Kings goalie Martin Jones.
It was a rare loss for Jones, a rookie sensation who came into the game with an 8-1-0 record, a 1.31 goals-against average and three shutouts in his first eight NHL games.
Jones stopped 29 of Chicago's 30 shots, while Raanta stopped all 26 of the Kings' shots.
Los Angeles had a chance to tie the game at 13:22 of the second period when Kings forward Dustin Brown was awarded a penalty shot after being hooked by Chicago defenseman Brent Seabrook, but Raanta stopped the subsequent wrist shot.
The Blackhawks earned their second win over the Kings this season, as they captured a 3-1 victory on Dec. 15 at the United Center.
Chicago began its second half of the season while closing out its December schedule with an 8-3-3 mark. Blackhawks went 12-2-1 in November.
The Kings visit the Dallas Stars on Tuesday to close out 2013. They are 9-4-0 in December.
NOTES: After Chicago set a season-high attendance mark Friday vs. the Colorado Avalanche (22,201), Monday's crowd was 22,161, the second-largest crowd at the United Center this season. The Blackhawks are one game from reaching 250 consecutive sellouts, tops in the NHL. ... The Blackhawks entered Monday leading the NHL with 3.73 goals per game and 153 goals scored. ... Chicago's Joel Quenneville is closing in on third place in the NHL's all-time wins list for coaches. He has 688 wins, four short of tying Dick Irvin (692). ... Los Angeles' Darryl Sutter is three games away from 1,000 as an NHL head coach.