By Chris Emma–
CHICAGO (CBS) — When Blackhawks coach Joel Quenneville pulled goaltender Corey Crawford in favor of reserve Scott Darling to start the second period of Game 1 of his team’s first-round series against the Nashville Predators, he was simply looking for a spark.
Then, Quenneville gave Darling the starting nod for Game 3 in Chicago because there was an established trust in the hot hand. Entering Game 5 in Nashville on Thursday, it has become apparent that the 26-year-old rookie is Blackhawks’ best option in net.
Darling has stopped 127 of the 131 shots that have come his way, including work in four different sudden-death overtimes. With Chicago leading the series 3-1, Darling is 3-0 with a 1.05 goals against average and a .969 save percentage.
“Every shot is do or die,” Darling said after Tuesday night/Wednesday morning’s triple-overtime 3-2 win over Nashville.
The Blackhawks hold tremendous confidence in Darling, whose roller coaster through the minor leagues has led him to Chicago. Darling has been consistent, not yet letting up a bad goal in this series. To no surprise, Quenneville confirmed Wednesday afternoon that he’s riding with Darling in Game 5.
While Crawford often times kept the Blackhawks in games single-handedly this regular season, he’s been inconsistent this postseason — a great concern after he led Chicago to a Stanley Cup two seasons ago.
Even when the stakes grow so high in each overtime, Darling remains the same even-keeled, focused goaltender.
“He’s been great,” Quenneville said. “(He has) consistency, composure, is confident, handles the puck and moves forward to the next challenge and next opportunity. Guys have responded in front of him, as well. Pretty good story.”
Added Blackhawks forward Brandon Saad: “What can’t you say about him?”
Darling credits his usual approach for working in tense overtime situations. It’s about keeping it simple, he said. Darling seems to always be in the proper position with his 6-foot-6 frame and is ready to approach the puck.
After a marathon Game 4 that ended at 1:16 a.m. Wednesday, Darling was still living in the moment.
“I’m thrilled we won,” he said. “It was an unbelievable game, a real war. A great ice hockey game — just a classic game. I’m a little bit tired, I can’t wait to get to bed.”
Rest, recovery time key for Blackhawks
In fairness, it was a difficult question to answer near 2 a.m. after three overtimes of playoff hockey. However, it’s an obvious inquiry.
How do the Blackhawks and Predators recharge for Thursday’s Game 5 in Nashville?
“You’ve got time (Wednesday) to chill,” said Quenneville, who scratched Wednesday’s practice. “The way they take care of themeslves now — they drink their fluids, they eat properly. There’s a lot of time between now and the next game.”
The Blackhawks credited their team training staff for supplying proper fluids and nutrition during and after the game. With a morning of rest prior to Wednesday’s flight to Nashville, the players could recuperate their bodies from a brutal battle.
“It’s definitely draining, but it’s hockey,” Saad said. “We’ve got to start preparing for the next one.”
While it took three overtimes, the Blackhawks earned a 3-1 series lead, a commanding margin over the Predators. Had one bounce or break gone Nashville’s way, Chicago would be up against the wall in a tough road environment.
In a hard-fought game, the Blackhawks got one step closer to finishing off the Predators.
“We’ve had a lot of experience trying to close teams out,” said Brent Seabrook, who scored the game-winning goal. “In my experience — the core of guys in here would attest to that — the fourth (game) is the toughest.”
It may seem as if Chicago is limited in time before Thursday’s 8:30 CT puck drop — though Nashville obviously has the same disadvantage — but the Blackhawks believe they’ll be recovered and ready for Game 5.
“We’ve got a lot of time to prepare and get ready,” Seabrook said.
Bickell gives second line a steady presence
The Game 4 game-winner was set so perfectly. Patrick Kane dished to Seabrook, who ripped one past Predators goalie Pekka Rinne. A minute into the third overtime, the Blackhawks had themselves a 3-2 win.
A celebration ensued on United Center’s ice, as Chicago had just taken a 3-1 series lead. And none of this would have likely been possible if Bryan Bickell wasn’t on the ice screening Rinne.
“They got a net-front presence with Bick out there,” Quenneville said. “Probably the reason we scored.”
Quenneville swapped Kris Versteeg off the Blackhawks’ second line and replaced him with Bickell, known as a clutch playoff performer for his efforts in 2013. Alongside center Brad Richards and right wing Kane, Bickell made the line more dangerous.
In the case of this goal, and many other situations from the third period on, Bickell used his large 6-foot-4 frame to create opportunities in front of the net. This is a move that resembles Quenneville’s 2010 shift of Dustin “Big Buff” Byfuglien to the top line with Kane and Jonathan Toews.
The move to bring Bickell up to the second line paid dividends in Game 4, and he’s likely to stay put moving forward.
“That line’s got some juice,” Quenneville said.
Follow Chris on Twitter @CEmma670.