Antti Raanta turns 27 on Thursday in Finland, but he already received, perhaps, his best birthday present before returning home two weeks ago.
Roughly a half hour before leaving New York and heading to the airport with his wife, Anna, Raanta was agreeing to terms on a new contract with the Rangers. So before he ever left New York, Raanta was already returning, in a way, just as he had hoped.
"By the time we got to the plane it was all done, all set, and I was super happy that everything went well and that I am coming back to play for the Rangers," Raanta told BlueshirtsUnited.com on Wednesday. "The Rangers showed they really wanted to keep me here, so it was a pretty easy decision for me to make. It's a little bit easier to pack your bags, jump on the plane, go back home and start focusing on next year when you don't have to sit next to the phone all of the time and wonder what's going to happen."
A pending unrestricted free agent come July 1, Raanta was uncertain of what his future held after the Rangers were eliminated in the opening round of the 2016 Stanley Cup playoffs by the Pittsburgh Penguins. However a few days alter it became apparent that both Raanta and the Rangers wanted the same thing moving forward.
"When we had the exit meetings and talked with (Rangers General Manager Jeff Gorton), we were pretty much on the same page, so my agent and the team were able to work things out pretty quickly," explained Raanta. "It was a great year, great to be in New York, and the organization is first class so it's going to be fun to come back, start a new campaign, and go for the main thing--winning the Stanley Cup."
The Rangers acquired Raanta in a draft-day deal with the Chicago Blackhawks late last June. His first season in New York saw Raanta appear in 25 games--equaling his career-high set in 2013-14--and finish with the NHL's 8th-lowest goals against average (2.24). Raanta was 11-6-2 with one shutout while making 18 starts between the pipes and replacing Henrik Lundqvist in seven other contests.
Raanta won each of his first four starts, becoming the first goalie in Rangers history to accomplish that feat. He shut out the San Jose Sharks 4-0 in his Blueshirts debut on October 19 at Madison Square Garden to become the fourth goaltender in franchise history to record a shutout in his first start.
"The team was so welcoming when I arrived, and I felt like right from my first day at training camp I could be myself, and that was a big help," said Raanta, who surrendered just five goals over his first four starts. "The trade was a great thing for my career."
After backstopping a 4-3 win over the Toronto Maple Leafs on November 15, Raanta would not pick up another victory until a 4-2 winning decision against the very same Leafs on February 18. In that span Raanta was 0-4-2, suffered a concussion when struck in the mask by a sharp shot in Minnesota on December 17, and went exactly one month between starts at one point.
For Raanta the low point came on February 12 when he and Rangers let a late lead slip away in a 5-4 overtime loss on home ice to the Los Angeles Kings. However that turned out to be a watershed moment for Raanta, who tightened his focus, regained his mental edge, and finished the regular season on a 7-2-0 run in which he allowed more than two goals only once.
"I spoke with a (mental skills coach) I knew from Finland who helped me get rid of negative thoughts and forget about the bad things," Raanta explained on Wednesday. "It was more about just getting my mind right--and (Rangers goaltending coach Benoit Allaire) was a big part of that, too, because he is so positive, so upbeat. Once I realized you can't overthink things it was like downhill skiing after that--just enjoy the ride."
Though the Rangers were eliminated in the first round of the playoffs, Raanta was able to gain some memorable and valuable experiences by appearing in three games against the Penguins in the first round.
In fact Raanta, who has a Stanley Cup ring from his days in Chicago, but had never appeared in a Stanley Cup playoff game prior to this spring, was forced into action in the series opener in Pittsburgh after Lundqvist suffered an eye injury and could not play after the first period.
"The atmosphere was unreal in the building," recalled Raanta. "At one point I remember there was a face off in Pittsburgh's end, and I could hear the crowd, and I was thinking Wow, this is awesome, and I had a little smile inside. It was like You can do this, you can play in these big games. Of course I wish we had won, but I learned so much and it was such a good experience for me."
Among the reasons why Raanta wanted to come back to New York was he wanted another crack at winning a Stanley Cup, and he wanted to further extend his relationship with both Allaire and Lundqvist.
"When you are with (Allaire) you are more relaxed because he is so positive and always smiling," offered Raanta. "And Henrik's work ethic is inspiring--you want to always be working as hard as him."
Raanta will spend his summer back home in Finland--he and Anna just visited Germany on a brief holiday last week--and work diligently to prepare for the 2016-17 campaign.
Of course first he still has that 27th birthday to celebrate, though he's not expecting it to be anything over the top.
"Maybe just a surprise party, and no one will show up," joked the affable Raanta. "Nah, you save the big parties for a 30th birthday party. I'm only 27, you can't celebrate too much over that."