NEW YORK —Against possibly the best team in hockey, on the road, with first place in the Central Division suddenly within reach, Joel Quenneville sat his red-hot No. 1 goaltender for a guy who hadn’t played since giving up four goals on Feb. 27, a guy with just nine NHL starts to his credit.
And all Scott Darling did was shut out the New York Rangers 1-0 at Madison Square Garden.
“It’s one of the most famous arenas in the world against one of the most iconic jerseys there is,” Darling said after making 25 saves in his first career shutout. “Original Six matchup on NBC Sports Network. I couldn’t ask for much more.”
Suddenly, emphatically, and a little improbably, it’s all going the Blackhawks’ way. The most devastating moment of the season — Patrick Kane crashing into the boards and breaking his clavicle on Feb. 24 —has proven to be not their breaking point, but rather their turning point, the moment when a winter of discontent yielded to another spring of promise and potential.
With a sharper attention to detail and a renewed focus on team defense as their most dynamic offensive player heals, the Hawks are 6-0-1 in their last seven, with four straight wins, including an impressive sweep of the two elite New York teams in a 27-hour span. They’re a mere three points behind the St. Louis Blues for first place in the Central Division, and two points behind the second-place Nashville Predators with two games in hand. And while the Blues face a daunting schedule, the Hawks’ next four games come against Dallas, Carolina, Philadelphia and Columbus — four teams simply playing out the string.
And the Hawks believe they’re past the point of the season in which they play down to the level of their competition.
“I think we’ve got a lot of incentive on our own side, and the teams we’re going to be playing have got incentive,” Quenneville said. “There are no easy games, and getting ready this time of the year shouldn’t be an issue.”
It wasn’t for Darling, who hadn’t played since enduring a 4-0 loss at Tampa Bay three weeks earlier. Quenneville gave the rookie from Lemont the nod even though Corey Crawford is 6-0-1 with a 1.13 goals-against average and .964 save percentage in his last seven games,because of the heavy workload Crawford faced Tuesday night in a 38-save victory over the Islanders.
Darling vindicated his coach, catching a break early when a Rangers goal was wiped out by a premature whistle and outdueling Cam Talbot, who once again made life difficult on the Hawks 10 days after winning at the United Center 1-0 in overtime. In three career starts against the Hawks, Talbot —an injury replacement for all-world goalie Henrik Lundqvist — has given up just two goals. But this time, the Hawks one-upped him.
Fittingly, it was Brad Richards — bought out by the Rangers over the summer after falling to the fourth line during their run to the Stanley Cup Final last season — who finally broke through for the Hawks after more than 108 scoreless minutes against the Rangers, scoring the lone goal 7:19 into the third period. In an incredibly tight-checking game, the Rangers somehow left Richards all alone around Talbot, and Richards took his time and positioned himself on the doorstep before snapping a shot past him.
“You never want to say it, but tonight was a little special,” Richards said. “It was a bonus to get one in this building against them. Not in a bad way. I have nothing bad to say about the organization or New York —everybody knows how much I loved playing here. But it’s pretty cool to score against them and win the game.”
It was the cherry on top for the Hawks, who finally appear to be getting the sour taste of the last couple of months out of their mouths.
“It was a big win for us,” Quenneville said. “A lot of good things happened.”