Darling makes a molehill out of a mountain in his first playoff start

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It was a relatively calm afternoon in the vicinity of the Blackhawks’ net Sunday. Very few thrills, hardly any spills, just Scott Darling being as steady as a pair of windshield wipers. It can’t be stressed enough that calm is good.

The Hawks were asking a lot from a man making his first playoff start, and doing so in front of a rowdy United Center crowd. They were asking for goalie peace and quiet in Game 3 against the Predators. They were asking for the Lemont native to try to shrink a huge personal moment into something smaller and more manageable.

What they were asking, in so many words, was this: Forget the Chicago icons painted on your mask – the Blues Brothers, Portillo’s, the Bean, an L train, the skyline and “Ferris Bueller’s Day Off’’ — and pretend you’re from Paducah.

They got it in a 4-2 victory, with Darling making 35 saves to give the Hawks a 2-1 series lead.

“Rock solid,’’ coach Joel Quenneville said of his goalie.

That’s exactly what the Hawks needed coming off a bad loss in Game 2. Corey Crawford had struggled in that 6-2 defeat. On Saturday, Quenneville announced the decision to start Darling on Sunday. It meant the 26-year-old had a day to think about the enormity of it all.

How do you keep things normal when there’s nothing normal about the situation?

“Try and pretend it’s normal,’’ he said, laughing.

On the same day a year ago, Darling lost 6-0 to the Wolves at Allstate Arena as a member of the American Hockey League’s Milwaukee Admirals. The year before that, he did most of his work for the Wheeling (W.V.) Nailers of the ECHL.

The most natural question you’d ask yourself after playing for the Louisiana IceGators and the Florida Everblades, besides, “Who thought of these team nicknames?’’ is, “Do I belong in the NHL?’’

“I tried to stop saying that to myself,’’ he said. “The guys on the team have made me feel like I belong. That’s a huge thing for me, to not feel any different, not feel like it’s a freak accident that I’m here. The guys treat me like I belong, and that’s come through in my confidence and in my play.’’

Darling said he didn’t spend his time in the minors looking to take the next step. He dug his skates into the ice and made himself at home.

“I didn’t think about (the NHL) much to be honest,’’ he said. “The motto that my dad told me was ‘saw the wood in front of you.’ If you keep playing well, someone will notice. That’s what I’ve been trying to do. Play good where I’m at, and when I get a chance to move up, just try to make the most of the opportunity. That’s what I did to get here.’’

The way he responded to trouble Sunday was the most impressive thing about his performance. The Predators scored lightning-quick goals after Hawks’ goals, and it very easily could have reduced Darling to emotional rubble. Mike Ribeiro’s came 31 seconds after Andrew Desjardins’ in the first period, and Mattias Ekholm’s came 22 seconds after Jonathan Toews’ in the second.

After that, Darling settled down and outplayed veteran Pekka Rinne.

“As a goalie, that kills your momentum,’’ he said of the Predators’ quick answers. “I knew I needed to at least keep the lead for a little while. We were able to do that.’’

Darling was excellent in relief of Crawford in Game 1, stopping 42 shots and helping the Hawks claw back from a 3-0 deficit to win 4-3. Darling said Crawford has been cheering him on, telling him to enjoy the moment. That’s easier said than done when you find yourself in an NHL playoff game, when adrenaline is coming out of your pores and when 22,020 United Center crazies are cheering for the Hawks the way you did as a kid.

“That why’s he good at reminding me because I get a little bit in my own head sometimes, trying to perform for more than just the team,’’ Darling said. “I want to do good for everybody. He reminds me to have fun, relax and just do your thing.’’

It’s hard to believe Darling won’t be the Hawks’ starter for Game 4 Tuesday, but you know what they say about hockey: It’s hockey. You never know.

He took Crawford’s advice and did his thing Sunday. That should be more than enough for another start.

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