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Darling's goaltending fuels Hawks' comeback win

by Brian Hedger

NASHVILLE -- Scott Darling's dream season continued for the Chicago Blackhawks at Bridgestone Arena on Wednesday.

The 26-year old rookie goalie made his debut in the Stanley Cup Playoffs when he relieved starter Corey Crawford after one period, and he played a critical role in the Blackhawks' 4-3 comeback win in double overtime against the Nashville Predators in Game 1 of a best-of-7 series in the Western Conference First Round.

Darling made 42 saves, didn't allow a goal and gave the Blackhawks a big lift midway through the third to keep it 3-3 by making a great save on a backdoor play during a Nashville power play.

"I think everybody on the bench got an immediate lift there, like, ‘OK, we dodged a bullet there,'" said Blackhawks defenseman Duncan Keith, whose goal at 7:49 of the second overtime ended the game. "He saved us big-time there."

Darling credited the Blackhawks' coaching staff for the save, which denied Predators defenseman Ryan Ellis of what looked like a sure goal. Knowing that Nashville likes to look for backdoor plays on power plays, the 6-foot-6, 232-pound Darling got his right pad over just in time to stop a snap shot by Ellis off a feed by forward Colin Wilson.

"It was good pre-scouting by the coaches and by [Blackhawks goaltending coach] Jimmy Waite," said Darling, who's from the Chicago suburb of Lemont, Ill., and made his NHL debut with the Blackhawks this season. "They tried it on a few other power plays, but one time Wilson just shot it and one time I blocked the pass, but he executed [that one] just how he wanted to do it. Luckily the coaches gave me a heads-up on that play before the game and I was able to get a read on it."

More important, he was able to get his right pad on it.

That pad, along with his blocker, got a workout. Darling made several key saves in the third period and first overtime using each piece of equipment, giving the Blackhawks confidence with every save.

"I look back on what he's done for us over the course of the season. Every time we put him in the net our team doesn't change our approach and there's a lot of confidence in one another," Blackhawks coach Joel Quenneville said. "But today, playing a playoff game of this magnitude in that situation … that was one of the greatest relief performances you're going to see."

Darling was called upon to relieve Crawford to start the second period. He needed to make four saves in those first 20 minutes, but his night got busier about halfway through the third period after Nashville recovered from losing a 3-0 lead in the second and started pushing for a go-ahead goal.

The Predators outshot the Blackhawks 15-10 in the third, 17-9 in the first overtime and put six more shots on goal in the second overtime before Keith's goal. Darling stopped them all.

"He was spectacular, especially on the power play," said Quenneville, who wasn't happy with the goals Crawford allowed in the first period. "He came out of nowhere. He had some big saves in overtime. It was a remarkable performance by him and a great comeback by us."

Quenneville's "out of nowhere" comment was in reference to the save against Ellis plus another a few minutes later to deny a goal by defenseman Roman Josi of a rush. It holds true to Darling's career path as well.

He was basically an afterthought during a tryout at training camp, but impressed enough to get a one-year contract and then took advantage of an opportunity to make his NHL debut during the first of two injury stints for Crawford.

Darling eventually ascended to the full-time backup role, supplanting Antti Raanta, and was signed to a two-year contract extension. Not bad for a goalie who bounced around the minor leagues before a breakout season with Nashville's affiliate in the American Hockey League, the Milwaukee Admirals, in 2013-14.

Since signing with the Blackhawks, the team he grew up cheering for, it's been a continuing dream scenario.

"You've got to give him a ton of credit for battling in there," Keith said. "His path to the NHL is one that it's a great story and you saw what he was able to do tonight. That save on their power play, I think it was Ellis, the backdoor, that's a difference-maker and those are the type of saves you just need to win hockey games."

The next question is whether Darling or Crawford will get the start in Game 2. Quenneville said he'll reveal the pick Thursday.

"The decision will be easy," Quenneville said. "We'll talk about it [tonight] and [Thursday]."

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