Dennis Wierzbicki-USA TODAY Sports

Future is now for Antti Raanta and Chicago Blackhawks

Chris Humphreys-USA TODAY Sports

The Chicago Blackhawks are 17-4-4, and on the surface it appears that there are no problems for the defending Stanley Cup Champions. Picking up points in 21 of the first 25 games is remarkable considering this team just came off of the Cup run, but the core players like Patrick Kane, Jonathan Toews and Duncan Keith all look hungrier than ever.

There is one tiny little issue for the ‘Hawks though: Corey Crawford has played in 23 games and currently is second in the NHL in minutes played.

One of the major reasons that Chicago was able to win its second championship in four seasons last year was that Crawford was so well rested heading into the postseason. Ray Emery was spectacular as the No. 2 guy, and he gave the starter plenty of time to rest up in time for the playoffs.

Emery used that outstanding level of play to land a new contract with the Philadelphia Flyers while Chicago dipped into the past to bring Nikolai Khabibulin back to town for his second tour of duty. That trade off hasn’t been even remotely equal, and Crawford’s current workload (he’s on pace to make 80 appearances) isn’t sustainable. Not if Chicago wants to keep him fresh enough to steal a game or two in the third and fourth rounds.

That’s why Antti Raanta suddenly is the most important player for the Blackhawks. This team has enough depth to deal with injuries and under-performers up front and on the blue line. They don’t boast that same depth in net, and with Khabibulin on the shelf for the time being, the 24-year-old rookie has a chance to earn some reps in the NHL.

He’ll get his first crack at it this season tonight when the ‘Hawks take on the Calgary Flames.

If Raanta plays well this evening, he should continue to see at least a time share with Crawford. The typical No. 1 is already way out in front of how many games Chicago likely wanted him to play, and even having someone else play in 15 or 20 games the rest of the way might not give Crawford enough time to stay fresh.

How the ‘Hawks manage their current goaltending situation could be the difference between a repeat or a second-round exit. It seems ridiculous to think that something Chicago is doing a quarter of the way into the campaign could have such serious repercussions, but Crawford can not continue to play as much as he has.

Not if the ‘Hawks are gunning for another Cup.

Tags: Antti Raanta Chicago Blackhawks Corey Crawford NHL

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