Darling made his NHL debut Sunday at the rink where he used to attend games as a Blackhawks fan and led his hometown team to a 2-1 win against the Ottawa Senators, snapping a two-game losing skid for Chicago.
"I was a little bit terrified and excited," said Darling, who made 16 of his 32 saves in the third period to preserve a one-goal lead. "It's 20 years of work coming into this one game, so I was excited. It went well and I'm just happy."
Darling, 25, is from nearby Lemont, Ill. He signed with the Blackhawks as a free agent during the summer following a strong season for the Milwaukee Admirals of the American Hockey League. After working his way through the minor leagues at multiple stops in several different leagues, the 6-foot-6, 232-pound goalie finally got a chance to realize his lifelong dream of playing in the NHL.
He didn't squander the opportunity, making big saves from start to finish and allowing just one shorthanded goal in the second period.
"It's funny, [Darling's] the same birth year as me and we kind of grew up together, going to the same hockey camps," said Blackhawks right wing Patrick Kane, who earned the 500th point of his career with a secondary assist on a goal by captain Jonathan Toews in the second period. "I kind of joke around with him now, saying he's a lot better now than he was back then. He's had a great run the past few years. It seems like he's moving up one league each year, so for him to play his first NHL game tonight in his hometown and play a game like he did, I'm sure he's excited about it."
The Blackhawks said Darling is the first local player to appear in a game with Chicago since defenseman Danny Richmond in 2007-08, and that he is the first former Southern Professional Hockey League player to play in an NHL game.
Craig Anderson, who's originally from nearby Park Ridge, Ill., started for the Senators and took the loss despite making 43 saves.
If Darling was nervous, it didn't show.
The Senators carried a lot of the early action and forced the rookie goaltender to make several big stops to keep them from taking a quick lead. He stopped all 12 Ottawa shots in the opening period and helped the Blackhawks kill off the first two of three Senators power plays in the game. He also thwarted a shorthanded mini-break at 9:12 by center David Legwand, who had taken the puck from Marian Hossa in the Chicago defensive zone.
"He was rock solid," Blackhawks coach Joel Quenneville said. "Excellent start to his career here at the NHL level. He was big, we needed him early in the game and he was settled down. He was patient, he was big, controlled his rebounds, handled the puck well, [and] moved extremely fast and quick. It was a real big game for him and for us, as well."
Anderson's workload increased as the first period progressed. He wound up facing 17 shots in the first 20 minutes and stopped them all, helping the Senators kill off two Blackhawks power plays.
The opening period, which featured eight combined penalties, ended scoreless. That lasted all of 21 seconds into the second, when Toews scored his second goal of the season on a wraparound during 4-on-4 play with Patrick Sharp and Mike Hoffman still in the penalty box for matching minors at 18:50 of the first.
Assisting on the goal were defenseman Duncan Keith and Kane, who said his milestone point didn't really sink in until he was on the bench.
"I didn't really even think about it," Kane said. "It's just a number to be honest with you, so hopefully there's many more to come. It's a pretty cool milestone. I'll remember this one for sure."
The Senators tied it 1-1 at 7:08 on the shorthanded goal by Michalek, who capped a 3-on-1 rush by burying a cross-ice feed from Alex Chiasson past Darling with a one-timer from the right circle.
A fortunate break set up the play. Blackhawks forward Brandon Saad rimmed the puck around the boards in the offensive zone, but center Brad Richards was prevented from playing it on the other side by referee Steve Kozari, who skated between him and the boards trying to get out of the way. The puck slid out to the neutral zone, where Chiasson collected it and took off toward Darling for the odd-man rush.
Seabrook put Chicago back on top at 13:38 with his first goal of the season, capping the fourth of six Blackhawks power plays. He fired a point shot that Anderson never saw thanks to a screen by Bryan Bickell.
Darling did some of his most impressive work during 1:27 of carryover power-play time at the start of the third period. He stopped four hard shots during the man advantage and added one more save at even strength during the sequence after defenseman Johnny Oduya got out of the box.
Ottawa, which dropped both ends of a back-to-back set, kept up the pressure the rest of the game. Darling just didn't flinch. He stopped 12 more shots and earned his first career win in impressive fashion.
The disappointed Senators head off to play at the Columbus Blue Jackets on Tuesday knowing the 45 shots they allowed and nine penalties they took were too much to overcome.
"I thought our goaltender played well," Senators coach Paul MacLean said. "Our penalty-killers really did an excellent job, only gave up six shots [on power plays]. Unfortunately, one of them ended up being a goal. At the end of the game, we had a push in the third period on the road in a tough building on a back-to-back game. We lost, so we're disappointed, but at the same time we should be able to take some positives out of it."