NEWARK, N.J. — Scott Darling still has trouble believing he’s here, on this team, wearing this jersey, playing behind these guys. After all, he spent part of last season in the third-tier ECHL, playing for the Cincinnati Cyclones. The idea of playing for the Chicago Blackhawks, his hometown team and perennial Stanley Cup contender, was borderline ludicrous.
“It’s amazing just to be in this league,” Darling said. “And I’m so happy to be here, and just happy to have the chance to play and contribute to the team.”
Not just a chance to play. A chance to stay.
Darling made his second straight start for the Hawks Tuesday night in New Jersey, and after stopping both Martin Havlat and Jaromir Jagr in the shootout in a 3-2 victory over the Devils that extended the Hawks’ win streak to seven games, he’s making a run at becoming the permanent backup once Corey Crawford returns from injury. Darling improved to 4-1-0 in his brief NHL career with two shootout victories, and again impressed coach Joel Quenneville even after a sometimes shaky 22-save effort against the Devils.
“He was solid, big in the net,” Quenneville said. “I think he’ll get better when he sees more situations, as well. … Situational awareness comes along with goaltending experience.”
Whether he gets more experience is up to Quenneville. Antti Raanta, the incumbent backup, will get a look either in Boston Thursday or Long Island on Saturday. But Quenneville is obviously very high on the massive, 6-foot-6 Darling, who’s given up just one goal in three of his five starts.
“I’m not looking at it like [a competition],” Darling said. “Whenever they ask me to play, I”m just going to do the best I can. It’s all out of my control.”
Jonathan Toews and Patrick Kane scored in the shootout for the Hawks, whose seven-game win streak is the longest in the NHL this season. Duncan Keith tied the game 2-2 with 3:13 left in the third period when he put a Marian Hossa rebound into a wide-open net, beating Devils goaltender Keith Kinkaid, who made 37 saves in his NHL debut. Bryan Bickell had the Hawks’ other goal, off a feed from Patrick Sharp, who played his first game since Nov. 4.
Raanta’s been no slouch himself, with two stellar efforts in a shutout of the Philadelphia Flyers and a 40-save, 4-1 win over the rival St. Louis Blues. Also, he’s a known commodity, with a larger body of work at the NHL level. It’s becoming one of those tough decisions Quenneville always says he “welcomes.” And with Crawford slated to return in a week or two, the audition window is short.
“It’s a good opportunity for both guys to play, and whether it’s a short-term evaluation [or a] long-term evaluation, I think both goalies want to prove that they can play,” Quenneville said. “It’ll sort itself out for sure. Both guys have played well every time they’ve been in the net, so it’s a healthy situation, organizationally.”
After playing sporadically most of the last year, Raanta was excited about the possibility of playing every night.
“Of course,” he said. “That’s a [big] thing in a goalie’s opinion, you can get [into] a good rhythm. You don’t have to think too much, just go there, play the game, and that’s it.”
Instead, Raanta has found himself on the bench the last two games, watching Darling play — and play well, at that.
“That’s the nature of that beast, knowing you can be called on once every 10 games, sometimes 15,” Quenneville said of the difficult life of the backup goalie. “We talk about jobs in the league. There are a lot of guys pushing for jobs. That’s why you want to keep yourself in that position of being ready.”