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Craig Smith celebrates his second-period goal on Corey Crawford in Friday night’s Game 2. (AP Photo)

Scott Darling to start Game 3 for Blackhawks

SHARE Scott Darling to start Game 3 for Blackhawks
SHARE Scott Darling to start Game 3 for Blackhawks

Corey Crawford has the Stanley Cup ring, the 57 playoff starts, the stellar career numbers and the two Jennings trophies, including the one he just won with the best season of his career.

But, man, Scott Darling had that 42-save masterpiece in Game 1. And Joel Quenneville wants to see if he can do it again. So when the puck drops for Game 3 against the Nashville Predators on Sunday afternoon at the United Center, the rookie will be in the Blackhawks’ net, not the $36-million veteran.

And for the first time since 2010, when rookie Antti Niemi outmuscled veteran Cristobal Huet from the top spot, the Hawks have themselves a good old-fashioned goaltender controversy.

“Things change instantly in our game,” Quenneville said. “We saw it instantly in Game 1, and here we are with a chance to make a different decision for Game 3. That’s the business we’re in. It’s performance-driven a lot of times. This one is strictly because Scott’s played outstanding in the series and has been the differential.”

Crawford has given up nine goals on 47 shots in four periods of play so far in the first-round series, which Nashville evened at 1-1 with Friday night’s 6-2 rout. In that one, Crawford surrendered three goals in 2:19 in the third period to turn a tight game into a laugher.

Darling, meanwhile, stopped all 42 shots he faced in Wednesday’s 4-3 double-overtime victory after replacing Crawford at the start of the second period.

Quenneville cautioned against reading too much into the decision, saying he’d be re-evaluating the goaltender situation on a game-by-game basis.

“It’s not like he’s never going to play again,” Quenneville said of Crawford. “It’s not like he’s discarded off the team. He’s still a part of it, he’s a big part of it.”

Crawford was hardly the only one to blame in both games, as the team defense in front of him let him down repeatedly. But the Predators seemed to be targeting him high with great success, and Darling — with his 6-6 frame and surprising athleticism — was better able to atone for his teammates’ mistakes than Crawford was. At least, in these two games.

But even dating back to the Western Conference final last spring against Los Angeles, Crawford has struggled. In his last eight playoff games, he’s yielded 34 goals, never allowing fewer than three.

Both Jonathan Toews and Patrick Kane defended Crawford — who was the biggest reason the Hawks stayed afloat while Kane missed the last 21 games of the regular season with a broken clavicle — and said he wrongfully gets too much of the blame after losses.

“He is arguably one of our top players, and one of the most valuable players,” Toews said. “He won a Stanley Cup a few years ago. And there is no doubt every star player has moments where maybe they are exposed, and I think people look at certain guys more. In the goaltender’s position, if things go wrong for your team, it’s always easy to blame that guy. As a team, we have to take responsibility, we know we have to try and clean it up in front of him and make his job a bit easier.”

Added Kane: “Crawford got us where we are this season. Sometimes when goalies let in a few goals or maybe struggle, it can stand out a little bit. Whoever’s in net, we’ll support and try to give our best effort for them.”

Quenneville had goaltending coach Jimmy Waite deliver the news to Crawford on Saturday, and said he’ll speak with Crawford before Sunday’s game. Before Game 2, Quenneville called the decision to go back to Crawford a “no-brainer.” This one, he said, required a lot more consideration. And depending on how Darling fares in Game 3, it might not get any easier.

“I would expect Crow to handle it like a pro,” Quenneville said. “I think he’d be understanding, [despite] that competitive instinct where you want to be there. But I’m sure he’s probably not happy.”

NOTE: Shea Weber, the Predators’ star defenseman, did not make the trip to Chicago and will not play in Games 3 or 4. Weber appeared to suffer an ankle or lower-leg injury on a collision with Brandon Saad in the second period Friday night. Mike Fisher, who missed Game 2 with a lower-body injury, did make the trip, but is still listed as day-to-day.

Email: mlazerus@suntimes.com

Twitter: @marklazerus

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