Darling allowed one goal in his first career NHL game. He allowed one goal in first Central Division game. He recorded his first career shutout in a 1-0 win over the New York Rangers at Madison Square Garden in a key late-season game. He had a 1.96 goals-against average and .936 save percentage in 14 regular-season games.
On Wednesday, Darling was given the greatest challenge yet of his young NHL career. With the Blackhawks trailing the Nashville Predators 3-0 after the first period of Game 1 of their first-round playoffs series, Darling was called upon to replace starter Corey Crawford.
Again, Darling didn’t flinch. He denied all 42 shots he faced, including 23 post regulation, to allow the Blackhawks the opportunity to pull off a stunning 4-3 comeback victory in two overtimes.
Chicago Blackhawks coach Joel Quenneville put Darling’s backup performance in a special category.
“Today, playing a playoff game of this magnitude and that situation, that’s one of the greatest relief performances you’re going to see,” Quenneville said.
Darling didn’t have much time to think about his first career NHL playoff game, and that may have worked to his advantage. He was told during the first intermission he would replace Crawford, who allowed three goals on 12 shots.
Once Darling hit the ice, his nerves activated. But once the puck began hitting him, he settled in.
“It was exciting, nerve-racking,” said the 26-year-old Darling, who is from the Chicago suburb of Lemont, Illinois, and grew up a Blackhawks fan. “Once I got going, I felt good.
“It was very similar to my first game I got to play this year. Just this is a dream situation to be in the Stanley Cup playoffs on the Chicago Blackhawks.”
The Blackhawks actually played too good on defense for Darling when he first entered the game. He was cold coming off the bench and faced just four shots in the second period. But as the game went on, the Predators began creating more and more chances. He saw 15 shots in the third period and 23 over the two overtimes.
Darling had no bigger save than on a Ryan Ellis shot in the third period. On a power play, the Predators worked the puck to Colin Wilson in the slot, and he quickly made a no-look pass to Ellis at the net. Darling was expecting the play -- the Predators had tried it before -- and he shifted left to right and threw his right leg out at the post. At that point, he turned to hope.
“That one they did it exactly how they wanted to do it,” Darling said. “I got a leg over. It’s a 50-50 shot. He either gets the top of the net, or he doesn’t. It hit my leg. I was pretty happy about that.”
Darling’s teammates have come to expect such saves. They no longer think of him as just some rookie. He has completely gained their confidence.
“It seems like no stage is too big for him,” Blackhawks forward Patrick Sharp said. “Tough position to get started in. As a rookie goaltender, I’m sure there’s a lot of nerves, for sure. Haven’t seen that out of him. He looks confident every time in net. He’s big. He’s square.”
He also may have given Quenneville something to think about. Quenneville said he would announce his Game 2 starting goaltender on Thursday.
Quenneville didn’t hint either way and has shown faith in Crawford all season. Whether Darling is given the net in Game 2, Quenneville went all out and praised his play in Game 1.
“He proved it to us,” Quenneville said. “It was a great opportunity for him. He seized the moment. Commend him on everything he achieved. I look back at what he’s done for us over the course of the year: 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.”