Antti Raanta’s streaks are over. Tuesday night, 24 saves weren’t enough.
First, the Rangers backup goalie’s scoreless stretch ended after an impressive 176:22, and then his run of three consecutive victories went by the boards as the Blackhawks edged the Blueshirts, 2-1, at Madison Square Garden.
Raanta, who stepped in for Henrik Lundqvist after a 4-2 loss to the Islanders on Dec. 6, blanked the Blackhawks, 1-0, in overtime four days ago in Chicago. Tuesday, backup Scott Darling, played that game and stood his ground with 33 saves.
“Darling was their best player, he made some key saves in key moments,” said Raanta, who allowed only three goals in his four games replacing Lundqvist. “Their first goal, I think I overplayed it a little bit, just unlucky, those things happen. The team has been playing great, the whole team made it easier for me to play these four games.”
The loss could pave the way for Lundqvist to return in Dallas tomorrow night. That would end the longest stretch of starts for Raanta since a 10-game run when he was with Chicago in December 2013.
“In my first year here (2013-14), this sort of happened in December,” recalled coach Alain Vigneault, “but when we were making our playoff push (to the Stanley Cup Final), I don’t remember anybody bringing up the fact that Hank had missed three games that December.”
All of the goals came in the second period. After the Rangers fired a half-dozen shots on Darling to open the second, Trevor van Riemsdyk took a pass between the circles from Artemi Panarin. While falling, Riemsdyk scored his first of the season at 5:18.
With a waist-high swing, Jesper Fast batted the puck out of the air near the left post and past Darling’s stick to tie the score at 8:15, and the goal call upheld after a review. The Rangers fired 16 shots in the period on Darling, and a bad defensive read allowed the tie-breaking goal.
Nick Holden took a step back as Brian Campbell carried the puck around the net. Dan Girardi stumbled a bit going to cover former Ranger Artem Anisimov, who buried the in-front pass from Campbell with 1:09 left.
Raanta made key saves in the third to keep it 2-1. Darling, 3-0-1 in his last four starts subbing for Corey Crawford, stopped Jimmy Vesey several times and Mats Zuccarello’s one-timer in the final minutes.
Raanta, 27, fully understands his role, saying: “Everybody knows who’s the No. 1 guy here. He still is.”
Fans haven’t seen the last of Raanta, though. “There’s no doubt that with a condensed schedule, the number of games you have to play in a short amount of time, two goaltenders that can give you a chance to win is a must,” Vigneault said.
Center Jonathan Toews and defenseman Brent Seabrook returned from injuries for the Hawks, while the Rangers were without Ryan McDonagh (flu). Rangers defenseman Brady Skjei was cut in the chin by a skate, stitched up and returned wearing a full shield after missing more than 20 minutes.
“I thought we handled ourselves pretty well for a lot of tonight,” Marc Staal said. “We’re still missing a lot of key guys. We just weren’t able to capitalize on our looks.”
In the Metro Division, the top five teams are separated by three points.
“It’s so tight in the standings, every night you need a point or two to keep up,” Girardi said. “It’d be nice to have tied it up and gone to overtime. Just couldn’t punch one more in.”