Raanta blanks Kings in final start before Crawford’s return

Antti Raanta spent the last 10 games proving to the Blackhawks and their opponents that he has what it takes to be a starting NHL goaltender – some day.

The Finnish goaltender repeatedly bailed out the defending Stanley Cup champions when Corey Crawford went down with an injury, including a sparkling effort when Raanta blanked the Kings 1-0 on Monday night at the United Center.

With Crawford recovered and set to reclaim the No. 1 job in the next few days, Raanta is headed to a backup role, but not before capping his run as starter with a 26-save effort, including a sparkling stop on a Dustin Brown penalty shot.

It was Raanta’s first career shutout, but with the way the 24-year-old has played since Crawford went down Dec. 8, it won’t be his last.

“I knew that I can play at this level but of course everybody was making questions about it,” said Raanta, who improved to 10-1-3 overall this season and 7-1-2 in 10 consecutive starts since Crawford went down. “You want to do all the small things as well as possible and just try to stop the pucks, because that is the biggest thing. There are lots of games still to play and lots of pucks to save.”

Brandon Saad provided the only offense Raanta needed with a first-period goal, and the Hawks withstood a hard-hitting effort from the Kings to cap a memorable 2013 that included the franchise’s fourth Cup.

Martin Jones was a tough-luck loser in goal for the Kings, who dropped their third consecutive contest.

Just over 7 minutes into the game, Saad broke into the Kings zone two-on-one with Bryan Bickell, gathered a pass from his teammate and ripped a forehand past the glove of Jones while falling down.

A fine defensive play by Jonathan Toews followed by a save from Raanta kept the Kings off the scoreboard.

While short-handed following a hooking penalty by Kris Versteeg, Toews locked up the stick of Jeff Carter in front and altered the Kings center’s shot that Raanta then handled by dropping to the ice.

In the second, Toews narrowly missed giving the Hawks a two-goal advantage when the captain broke loose and raced in on Jones while short-handed. The captain couldn’t finish as the puck rolled wide of the mark.

Raanta kept L.A. off the board when he stoned Brown on a penalty shot awarded to the Kings winger after he had been hooked by Brent Seabrook on a breakaway.

Brown skated in and tried to go five-hole on Raanta, but the rookie was fast enough with his pads to deny the chance.