Kevin Lankinen has traveled a long road to his spot as the No. 1 goalie for the Chicago Blackhawks. But he’s not ready to declare the journey finished.
The rookie has started 11 of Chicago’s 17 games this season, but the 25-year-old said he doesn’t have any kind of edge on Malcolm Subban and Collin Delia, the other two goalies who have played for the Blackhawks this season.
“I’m here for the first year,” Lankinen said. “Whenever I get the chance to start, I’m going to earn my net. Whenever I get the start, I’ll just do my best and go from there.”
Lankinen is likely to start again for the Blackhawks when they play at the Detroit Red Wings on Wednesday (7:30 p.m. ET; NBCSN).
He is 6-2-3 with a 2.49 goals-against average and a .925 save percentage, statistics that are more impressive considering he never played an NHL regular-season game until Jan. 19, when he made his debut against the Florida Panthers.
“He’s such a hard-working and driven individual, it’s not surprising, really,” Blackhawks developmental goaltending coach Peter Aubry said. “Especially with the consistency component. He brings the same thing, day in and day out, whether he has a practice jersey on or a game jersey on. I feel really good about the fact that he’s doing it day in and day out.”
Lankinen has been tested but he hasn’t been rattled. He allowed five goals on 30 shots in his NHL debut, a 5-4 overtime loss to the Panthers, and six goals on 43 shots in a 6-5 loss to the Columbus Blue Jackets on Thursday.
But after each loss, coach Jeremy Colliton started Lankinen the next game, and he responded each time. He made 30 saves in a 4-1 win against the Red Wings on Jan. 22 and 29 saves in a 3-2 overtime win against the Blue Jackets on Saturday.
He’s allowed two goals or fewer in seven of his 11 starts, and his eight starts with a save percentage of .900 or better is tied for third in the NHL, behind Semyon Varlamov of the New York Islanders and Andrei Vasilevskiy of the Tampa Bay Lightning (nine each). Lankinen’s .936 even-strength save percentage is sixth in the NHL among goalies to play at least five games.
“I love his composure, his demeanor, how he carries himself, and I wanted to give him a chance to respond to it right away instead of sitting on it a bunch of days,” Colliton said Saturday. “It’s a hard league, so you’re going to be tested every day. He’s been really good for us.”
Prior to signing with the Blackhawks, Lankinen played four seasons in Liiga, the top professional league in his native Finland, and was 43-37-21 with a 2.10 GAA and a .918 save percentage in 105 games with HIFK and KooKoo.
He played the past two seasons for Rockford of the American Hockey League, where he was 15-18-6 with a 2.77 GAA and a .909 save percentage in 40 games while adjusting to the smaller ice in North America.
“When he left to go to North America, he had to adapt his game from the bigger rink to the smaller rink: how you play the angles, how much you can challenge, those kinds of details,” HIFK goaltending coach Jan Lundell said. “He has always been really good moving on his skates. Technically he’s really good, and in his couple of years over there his game and how fast he moves and how strong he is on his legs, that’s really impressed me a lot.”
Lankinen is the most recent Finland-born goalie to find NHL success, along with contemporaries Juuse Saros of the Nashville Predators, Joonas Korpisalo of the Columbus Blue Jackets, Kaapo Kahkonen of the Minnesota Wild and Ville Husso of the St. Louis Blues.
That group looked up to older NHL goalies from Finland, including Tuukka Rask of the Boston Bruins and Pekka Rinne of the Predators, as well as retired goalies Miikka Kiprusoff and Kari Lehtonen.
The foundation built in Finland for its goalies transfers well to the NHL because the focus there remains on areas where the game has changed the most.
“The game is getting faster, so you have to be better on your feet moving and I think that’s a big thing in Finland,” Lundell said. “We’re pretty focused in our approach that we have to be really, really good on our feet so that we can play under the puck and control all the angles.”
Time will tell if Lankinen will be the next top NHL goalie from Finland, but he has exceeded expectations so far, taking the No. 1 job in Chicago after beginning training camp No. 3 on the depth chart.
“It’s nice to see him getting the chance to show that he can play,” Lundell said. “It doesn’t surprise me because he’s worked so hard for this opportunity and he has prepared himself both physically and mentally for this opportunity, as you can see in how he’s playing and how solid he is. He’s ready for the challenge.”