Scott Darling, Richard Panik lead Blackhawks past Senators

OTTAWA — Duncan Keith was waxing poetic about Scott Darling, and how he’s always ready to step in at a moment’s notice, and how the Blackhawks never miss a beat when he’s in net, and how he proved himself in the Nashville series in the 2015 playoffs, and how you need guys like that to win Stanley Cups, when he finally caught himself.

“We’re talking playoffs here — we’ve still got a lot of hockey here coming up,” Keith said. “But obviously it’s right around the corner.”

Twelve games left, to be exact. And the Hawks are surging into the spring, as Darling made 33 saves in a spot start in a 2-1 victory over the Ottawa Senators. The win, coupled with Minnesota’s loss at Carolina, put the Hawks three points up in the Central Division standings, and the race for the top seed in the Western Conference.

A little more than a month ago, the Hawks trailed the Wild — who have six regulation losses in their last eight games — by nine points.

Nick Schmaltz tries to put the puck past Ottawa goalie Mike Condon during the first period Thursday night. (AP Photo)

“It just shows the consistency in the way we’ve been playing,” Darling said. “Everyone’s contributing, and they’re doing it every night. It’s a good time to get everybody firing it up.”

Darling’s consistency is a bit different. He doesn’t play a whole lot, but when he does, he’s almost always on point. The league-leader in save percentage stopped 33 of 34 Ottawa shots in his first start since March 1, and his first action since suffering an upper-body injury on March 12, one that was supposed to sideline him for three weeks. But with Corey Crawford feeling “a little under the weather,” according to Joel Quenneville — he didn’t say if it was connected to the Shea Weber slap shot Crawford took in the facemask Tuesday in Montreal, but had said the goalie was physically “fine” before the game — Darling got the surprise start.

Even coming off the injury, it was nothing out of the ordinary for Darling.

“It’s kind of what I’m used to,” he said. “It wasn’t too bad. It was actually almost shorter than most gaps in my playing time.”

The game was, as Keith admitted, “kind of boring in a lot of ways,” but Darling and his good friend Mike Condon, who have worked together at summer goalie camps at Seven Bridges Ice Arena in Woodridge, waged a splendid goaltending duel. In their fifth career meeting — twice in the NHL, twice in the AHL, and once in the ECHL — Darling came out on top, thanks to Richard Panik’s power-play goal with 3:01 left.

Condon (26 saves) had the save of the night, snaring a point-blank shot by Artemi Panarin early in the first, and he made another beauty while flat on his back on Marian Hossa, who was playing in his 1,300th career game in the city where his career began 19 seasons ago. But Condon couldn’t stop Keith’s shot from the point from trickling in at 8:04 of the third, which gave the Hawks a 1-0 lead.

The Senators finally solved Darling on their fourth power play of the night, as Kyle Turris scored 12 seconds after Brent Seabrook was whistled for tripping. The Hawks had been 15-of-15 on the kill in March to that point. But the Hawks got overlapping power plays late in the third period, and Panik drilled home a Patrick Kane feed from behind the net to make it 2-1, and that was all Darling needed to beat his buddy, and give the Hawks some breathing room atop the standings.

“We’re great friends,” Darling said. “Obviously, we both want to win. I’m happy he played well, but I’m happy I won.”

Twitter: @marklazerus