Crawford returns, but Antti Raanta showcases improvement

While the excitement over Corey Crawford returning is completely justified, the Blackhawks' backup showed he's much improved from last season.

On Saturday night, the Chicago Blackhawks will get a pair of key pieces back in their lineup. Duncan Keith, recovered from his illness that was (thankfully) not the mumps, and Corey Crawford, off of a more extended absence, will both return to the lineup against the Columbus Blue Jackets.

Getting Corey Crawford back into the mix is obviously tremendous for the Blackhawks. He's been among the game's very best between the pipes this season, and he has the numbers to back it up. A goaltender that has been questioned for his consistency during the regular season in the last couple of years, Crawford has been nothing short of brilliant to this point. He has a 12-5-1 record on the year, with a .929 save percentage and a terrific 1.87 goals against average.

But what of the backup? There were plenty of questions as to who would serve as the no. 2 to Crawford and how high he'd actually rank in games started as a result. This was to the point where signing Michael Leighton as minor league depth ignited fears that he'd actually get a run at the NHL level. In Crawford's absence, however, the Hawks continued to showcase their suddenly upstart goaltending depth, between the likes of Antti Raanta and Scott Darling.

Following their win over the Minnesota Wild last week, the Blackhawks decided to send Darling back to Rockford and allow Raanta to remain as the backup, despite strong performances from both. There were enormous questions about the stability of the no. 2 spot behind Crawford, all of which were a result of Raanta's struggles from last year. It was his first season on North American soil, and he looked every bit the part in that respect.

Last year, Raanta finished with a save percentage under .900, at just .897, while going for a goals against average of 2.71, across 22 appearances on the year. That included a six-goal performance against the Nashville Predators in his last start of the year on April 12th. He only faced about 27 shots per appearance as well. This year, we've witnessed a complete turnaround.

Raanta is 5-2 on the year, boasting a 2.01 GAA and a .938 save percentage, a far cry from where he was a year ago, regardless of how small the sample size is. He's been lucky, as several opposing shots have found iron and bailed him out, but he's served his purpose nonetheless. We don't know if the fact that Raanta continues to roll as the backup is a result of the Hawks' brass having more faith in him, or more of a desire to develop Scott Darling with regular playing time. Nonetheless, this turnaround is important for a Hawks team that has been without Crawford more than they would have liked to this year.

Of course, this in no way indicates that Antti Raanta is any sort of long term solution should anything terrible happen to Corey Crawford. Or is it an indication that they could move Crawford's contract and give Raanta a run at any point in the future. It simply means that he's serving his purpose as the Blackhawks' backup goaltender. It's paid off thus far, and his improved performance should indicate that the Hawks could spell Crawford a little more as the season wears on, and keep him fresh for the spring.

Randy Holt is a staff writer for Second City Hockey. You can follow him on Twitter @RandallPnkFloyd.