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Darling, Blackhawks top Predators, take series lead

by Brian Hedger /

CHICAGO -- Scott Darling made the most of his first-ever start in the Stanley Cup Playoffs on Sunday at United Center, and the Chicago Blackhawks helped him win it by doing what they usually do when leading after two periods.

Getting 35 saves from Darling, the Blackhawks defeated the Nashville Predators 4-2 in Game 3 to take a 2-1 lead in their best-of-7 Western Conference First Round series.

"It was obviously a little bit nerve-wracking, but exciting at the same time," said Darling, a 26-year-old rookie from the Chicago suburb of Lemont, Ill., who started instead of Corey Crawford. "It couldn't have been a better game from the team to help me in my first playoff start. Every time I get to step on the ice at the United Center, I'm lucky. Every game is exciting."

Chicago scored three goals in the second period to grab the 4-2 lead. The Blackhawks were an NHL-best 25-0-0 when leading after two periods during the regular season.

Darling played in the series opener at Bridgestone Arena after Crawford allowed three goals on 12 shots in the first period. The former minor-league journeyman made 42 saves in 67:44 in the Blackhawks' 4-3 victory in double overtime.

This time, he started in the building he used to attend Blackhawks games as a fan.

"The fans were unbelievable," Darling said. "It was the loudest stadium I've ever been a part of in my life. The whole game the fans were roaring. It's an amazing experience to be on the ice for that."

Blackhawks coach Joel Quenneville didn't commit to starting Darling on Tuesday in Game 4 (9:30 p.m. ET; NBCSN, SN, TVA Sports 3, FS-TN, CSN-CH), but he came pretty close.

"We'll talk about it, but certainly he did everything he could to put himself back in the net," Quenneville said. "I thought he was rock solid today and did everything he could to get us the win. He was square, he was big and controlled a lot of pucks around the net as well."

Among the fans was a group of Darling's family and friends that included his father, Scott, who flew into Chicago after learning Saturday that his son would start. The younger Darling didn't disappoint.

Defenseman Mattias Ekholm and center Mike Ribeiro each scored his first goal of the series for the Predators.

Nashville outshot Chicago for the third straight game (37-30), but Darling made saves on 24 shots after Ekholm scored 58 seconds into the second period to tie it 2-2.

The Blackhawks regained the lead in the second on goals by forward Brandon Saad and defenseman Brent Seabrook before closing the door in the third.

"We put a lot of attempts at the net and lots of shots and lots of quality scoring chances," Nashville coach Peter Laviolette said. "[Darling] made some big saves, some we probably wished we had another look at. They played a fast game [today]. I think it caught us a couple of times, even when we had pucks on the walls. It seemed like their speed from behind caused some quick turnovers, and they were able to come back at us."

The Blackhawks surrendered two one-goal leads less than a minute after they had scored to go ahead, but they protected their two-goal margin a lot better.

Chicago's first and fourth lines were productive in Game 3.

The first line produced goals by captain Jonathan Toews, who also had an assist, and Saad, right wing Marian Hossa had two assists and played a strong two-way game.

The fourth line created goals by forward Andrew Desjardins and Seabrook.

Desjardins and center Antoine Vermette played for the first time in the series, and the Blackhawks got some good shifts from their checking lines as a result. Desjardins had four shots on goal and scored the game's first goal by staying after a block of his initial shot and sending the second attempt between the pads of Nashville goalie Pekka Rinne (26 saves).

"That was a really important first goal," Hossa said. "[Desjardins] just jumped into Game 3, and I think had a really strong game for us. Guys like that give us more energy and he's a guy who plays a physical game and that kind of brings energy."

Nashville played without injured captain Shea Weber (lower body) and center Mike Fisher (lower body). Defenseman Victor Bartley entered the lineup for Weber, who didn't make the trip to Chicago. Fisher made the trip, but hasn't played since the second period of Game 1.

Seth Jones moved up to the first defense pairing to join Roman Josi, taking Weber's spot, and each finished with a minus-3 rating.

"Shea's a big player, so I think we're going to miss him on our back end," Josi said. "I don't know, I thought we played a pretty good game. It could have gone the other way too. We had a lot of chances and couldn't capitalize on our chances in the second period. I didn't think we played that poor in the second. We had a lot of chances too. They just capitalized."

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