Scott Darling just trying to ride the wave of success in first Stanley Cup playoff

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Blackhawks goalie Scott Darling dives to make a save on a shot by Viktor Stalberg of the Nashville Predators in the Hawks 4-2 victory in Game 3 of their first-round playoff series Sunday at the United Center. Game 4 is Tuesday night at the UC. (Jonathan Daniel/Getty Images)

Scott Darling’s excellence in the Blackhawks’ first-round series with the Nashville Predators is not a mirage. But the Hawks still don’t know just how real it is. The Predators are eager to find out as well.

As good as Darling has been, Game 4 at the United Center on Tuesday was only his second start in the Stanley Cup playoffs for the Lemont native. He was still in the minor leagues in February. A year ago he was a backup in the minor leagues.

As Hawks coach Joel Quenneville said Monday, it “might be the year of the backup goalie this year.” But in the playoffs you never know how long it will last. Already, the biggest star among the out-of-nowhere backup goalies, the Ottawa Senators’ Andrew Hammond has lost his starting job.

The 27-year-old Hammond was a sensation in the regular season since making his first NHL start on Feb. 18. He went 14-0-1 in his first 15 games and 20-1-2 overall with a 1.79 goals-against average and .941 save percentage to lead the Senators to an improbable playoff berth.

But he’s been relatively ordinary in the playoffs, a 3.44 GAA and .914 save percentage in losing 4-3 and 3-2 in overtime to the Montreal Canadiens. The Senators started veteran Craig Anderson in Game 3.

The easy going Darling has been better than that for the Hawks, but he’s still a rookie. He seems comfortable to just ride the wave.

“I’m just happy that I’ve been in goal so far and we’re getting wins,” he said. I’m just happy to be a part of it.

“Everybody dreams of the Stanley Cup playoffs. You couldn’t have written the script any better, playing in the playoffs for your hometown team, your favorite team your whole life. It’s just been amazing so far.”

Asked if he’s surprised even himself, Darling again sounded like a player happy to be at the right place at the right time. “Well I’ve been working hard all year with the goalie coaches, just trying to be ready to go in case I ever got a moment like this,” he said. “I’m just trying to make the most of it.”

How far can he take this? Darling wouldn’t dare venture a guess. He was hardly a red-hot prospect when he signed with the Hawks last July after going 14-8-0 in 26 games with the Milwaukee Admirals. He seems keenly aware of his wayward road to the NHL _ The Louisiana IceGators, the Mississippi RiverKings, the Florida Everblades, the Wichita Thunder, the Wheeling Nailers, the Hamilton Bulldogs, the Cincinnati Cyclones and finally the Admirals and Rockford IceHogs.

“I wanted to be a Blackhawk — that’s why I signed here,” Darling said. “I’m not going to put a ceiling on anything. I just want to make the most of it and do the best I can and be here and stay here.”

Darling was at his best on short-notice — a spectacular 42-save shutout performance in relief of Corey Crawford in Game 1. He was not quite as dominant in Game 3, but good enough to win 4-2, stopping 35-of-37 shots. With more time to prepare — and more time to think about what he’s doing — it remains to be seen if Darling will get better, or worse.

“Give him credit — he’s played well,” Predators coach Peter Laviolette said. “Our guys are doing their best to generate quality scoring chances. We’ll continue to do the same thing in [Game 4]. I can’t speak for a young goaltender and his frame of mind. Our game plan will be the same regardless of which goaltender [plays in Game 4].”

As the stakes get higher, so do the expectations. But Darling isn’t concerning himself with the pressure.

“There’s expectations every time you step in the net,” he said. “Nobody holds themselves to a higher standard than I do. I want to be the best every time I play. I’m just trying to do my best.”

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