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Goalie Darling to start Game 3 for Blackhawks

by Brian Hedger / Chicago Blackhawks
(Bill Smith / Chicago Blackhawks)

Goalie Scott Darling will start for the Chicago Blackhawks against the Nashville Predators in Game 3 of the Western Conference First Round at United Center on Sunday (3 p.m. ET; NBC, TVA Sports, SN).

Darling will play ahead of Corey Crawford, who started the first two games at Bridgestone Arena.

Crawford started Game 2 despite being pulled from Game 1 after allowing three goals on 12 shots in the first period of the Blackhawks' 4-3 double-overtime win. Crawford, who went 32-20-5 this season, played all of Game 2 on Friday and struggled in a 6-2 loss that evened the best-of-7 series 1-1.

Darling, a 26-year-old rookie from the Chicago suburb of Lemont, Ill., will make his first Stanley Cup Playoff start after making saves on all 42 shots he faced to win Game 1 in relief. Darling's 67:44 of shutout relief was the longest in Stanley Cup Playoff history, according to the Elias Sports Bureau.

"All performance," Blackhawks coach Joel Quenneville said Saturday of his decision. "We obviously had a tough choice this time knowing both guys get some consideration. [Darling] is coming off a spectacular outing. I think his play is deserving of getting the start here at home, and getting back in the net is something he deserves based on how well he played in that game."

Prior to starting Crawford in Game 2, Quenneville called that decision a no-brainer because of Crawford's experience. This one wasn't as easy.

Crawford has allowed nine goals on 47 shots through four periods, but he started all 23 games when the Blackhawks won the 2013 Stanley Cup. He was voted by fans as an All-Star for the first time this season and was the main reason Chicago tied the Montreal Canadiens for the fewest goals allowed in the NHL, earning a share of the Jennings Trophy.

"It's a tough decision for us," Quenneville said. "I know [Crawford], he's done so much for us in the past and he's had a tremendous year. He's had two games where he's been OK and you got a game where Scott's been outstanding. It's one of those situations where both guys are getting consideration for the net, so it made it a little tougher, this call here, but [Crawford], we expect him to be ready and whenever he gets back in the net to be great again."

Darling made his NHL debut this season with the team he cheered for growing up. After bouncing around several minor leagues, he had a breakthrough season in 2013-14 with the Milwaukee Admirals, the Predators' American Hockey League affiliate. The Blackhawks invited him to training camp, and he impressed Quenneville and the front office enough to get a one-year contract.

This season, Darling played well enough for the Rockford IceHogs, the Blackhawks' AHL team, and with the Blackhawks in two injury-related call-ups that he supplanted Antti Raanta as the full-time backup. Darling signed a two-year contract Feb. 22; in 14 NHL games he went a 9-4-0 with a 1.94 goals-against average and .936 save percentage.

Darling's performance in Game 1 was one to remember for more reasons than a high save total.

"He's played great in every game he's played for us," defenseman Duncan Keith said after Game 1. "I think we've got to do a better job tightening up, but at the same time when he makes those types of saves it gives us confidence to know that he's there to back us up."

Quenneville said he didn't speak with Crawford on Saturday; rather, it was Blackhawks goaltending coach Jimmy Waite who informed Crawford of the decision.

"I haven't talked to Jimmy after he spoke to [Crawford], so I would expect [Crawford] to handle it like a pro," Quenneville said. "I think he'd be understanding knowing that the competitive instinct where you want to be in the net and you can't wait to get it back would be there. I'm sure he's probably not happy, but I can't say exactly how he handled it."

Neither goalie was available to the media Saturday, but right wing Patrick Kane said the Blackhawks are ready to play better in front of whichever goalie plays.

"I know that Crawford got us to where we are this season with his great play," Kane said. "Sometimes when goalies let in a few goals or struggle it can stand out a little bit. There's so much focus on the goaltender position … but whoever's in net we'll support and try to give our best effort for."

The Blackhawks made that same point after Game 1, but Game 2 wasn't any easier on Crawford. The Predators, who hold an 89-68 advantage in shots on goal, outshot the Blackhawks 35-26 in Game 2, including 16-6 in the first period.

Crawford's job is to remain focused and not let the benching rattle him.

"It's not like he's never going to play again," Quenneville said. "It's not like he's discarded off the team. He's still a part of it. He's a big part of it. Things change instantly in our game. We saw instantly in Game 1, and here we are with a chance to make a different decision in Game 3. That's the business we're in, performance-driven a lot of times, [and] sometimes you make it for other reasons. This one is strictly Scott's played outstandingly in the series. That's been the differential."

Author: Brian Hedger | Correspondent

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