By Chris Emma–
CHICAGO (CBS) — A roar lifted the United Center roof as the Blackhawks prepared to emerge from the home locker room. Flashy videos were projected onto the ice, and puck drop neared for Game 3 between Chicago and Nashville on Sunday afternoon.
Scott Darling waited in the tunnel, frozen like the crease he was asked by coach Joel Quenneville to protect for three periods, 60 minutes. The local product who grew up 40 minutes away from United Center in Lemont was about to take the spotlight in the loneliest position in sports, alone on an island in front of the net.
Out came the Blackhawks to the ice, with Darling leading the charge. His red mask features iconic Chicago images like the Blues Brothers and Willis Tower, representing where he’s from and what he’s protecting. With him was the weight of his hometown, the expectations coming from a future Hall of Fame coach, a championship-hungry fan base and a team confident in its chances.
Once again, Darling delivered. The Blackhawks earned a 4-2 victory over the Predators, and their goaltender was terrific, stopping 35 of 37 shots as Chicago took a 2-1 series lead.
“It couldn’t have been a better game from the team to help me in my first playoff start,” Darling said after the game.
Throughout much of the regular season, particularly in March and leading into the Stanley Cup Playoffs, Corey Crawford stood on his head. The Blackhawks’ $36-million goaltender, Crawford was magnificent — until Game 1 in Nashville. Coach Joel Quenneville — he of two titles in Chicago — pulled the bold move of going to Darling for Game 3, trusting his 42 saves on 42 shots in Game 1 relief duties weren’t a fluke.
Imagine the nerves for a Chicago native like Darling taking the ice as the Blackhawks’ goalie, attempting to lead his team, the city’s summer favorite, to its third championship in six years.
“Try to pretend like it’s normal,” Darling said.
That pregame pause for Darling was an attempt to feel normalcy. After that, Jim Cornelison’s riveting rendition of the national anthem, backed by the cheers of 22,020, drew some butterflies. Then, it was just another game.
Cup expectations go free from Darling’s shoulders when the puck drops. He stands tall in net — quite literally, too, with his 6-foot-6 frame — but always seems to be in proper form when the puck comes his way.
“I like his positioning,”Quenneville said. “I like the way he anticipates and challenges.”
Later, Quenneville admitted that Darling “did everything he could to put himself back in net” for Game 4 on Tuesday night. Frankly, how could the Blackhawks turn away from the rookie?
Confidence isn’t even the best attribute Darling has going for him in net. He’s a savvy goaltender who knows where the puck is coming, when to wait back and when to attack.
Darling’s story to reach this point is something special. The 26-year-old played for nine minor league teams, including the Louisiana IceGators, a Southern Professional Hockey League team, before joining his hometown Blackhawks.
But the rise of Darling to starting goaltender for the Western Conference favorites isn’t about a feel-good story. Simply put, he’s the best option for the Blackhawks right now. Sure, they didn’t play well in front of Crawford in Games 1 and 2, but Darling took advantage of this chance while bailing out his teammates on several occasions.
“A lot of confidence,” defenseman Duncan Keith said to describe Darling. “Obviously, he makes a lot of big saves. He’s just easy to play in front of when he’s making those saves, it just gives us confidence.”
Added Quenneville: “I thought he was rock solid today.”
When Darling skated off United Center’s ice after a job well done, the roar remained just as loud, with a salute to the goaltender who helped the Blackhawks take a 2-1 series lead. It was a feeling which hit home with the local boy — something he wants again and again throughout these Stanley Cup Playoffs.
Yet, Darling seemed to know it was coming when he led the Blackhawks out from the locker room. In the beginning and the end, normalcy prevailed, and he felt right at home.
“Every time I get to step on the ice at United Center,” said Darling, “I’m lucky.”
Surely, the Blackhawks are lucky to have Darling, too.
Follow Chris on Twitter @CEmma670.