The Chicago Blackhawks needed a heroic performance from an unlikely source to rally from a three-goal deficit to beat the Nashville Predators in double overtime Wednesday night.
That performance came from backup goaltender Scott Darling, who stopped all 42 shots he faced — including 23 in overtime — in his first-ever NHL post-season appearance.
Here’s everything you need to know about the Blackhawks’ unlikely Game 1 hero:
Name: Scott Darling
Weight: 232 lbs.
Drafted: 153rd overall (sixth round) by the Arizona Coyotes in 2007
Darling grew up in Lamont, Ill., as a huge Blackhawks fan, idolizing goaltender Ed Belfour. He began playing goalie at the age of five and developed into a legitimate NHL prospect.
However, Darling’s road to the pros was a bumpy one.
At the University of Maine, Darling partied too hard. According to Ken Campbell of the Hockey News, Darling violated the school’s code of conduct so many times the coach had no choice but to kick him off the team after his sophomore season.
“In his freshman year, we saw a guy who liked to have a little too much fun off the ice, but I’ve seen that with a lot of kids,” Maine head coach Tim Whitehead told Campbell. “But it became clear in his sophomore year that it wasn’t just a typical kid going through growing pains. He was suffering from alcoholism.”
At the time, Darling figured he could find a spot in the Coyotes organization, who drafted him a few years back. Instead, he showed up to camp out of shape, and his stint with the club turned out to be extremely brief. That’s when his career began to bottom out.
He signed with the Louisiana IceGators — not exactly a hockey hotbed — of the Southern Professional Hockey League and his struggles with alcohol continued. Darling spent the next few years bouncing around between the Mississippi River Kings (SPHL), Florida Everlblades (ECHL), and the Wichita Thunder (CHL).
“I used to like to go out to bars, liked to party, and do everything a normal 21-year old likes do do,” Darling told admiralsroundtable.com last year. “It wasn’t good for my hockey career. I got in trouble a few times. When you get labeled as a wild card people don’t want to pay you money to be a hockey player. You’re a liability. So that definitely slowed down the start of my career.”
Darling had a career epiphany when his long-time trainer and former NHL goalie coach, Brian Daccord, told him he was no longer welcome at his school. A year later, Darling was told he could only return if he committed to the weight room and he lost 40 pounds. It was around that time he stopped drinking entirely.
The following summer, Daccord contacted Nashville Predators goalie coach Mitch Korn. According to Campbell, Daccord posted one of Darling’s on-ice videos to Youtube and that — along with a face-to-face meeting — convinced Korn to sign Darling to a two-way contract between the ECHL and the American Hockey League.
Darling, who was no longer held back by his substance abuse, took over from there.
After a decent campaign with the Wheeling Nailers (ECHL) on 2012-13, Darling broke out the following season. Due to Pekka Rinne’s injury, every goalie moved up a spot in the organization. So Darling spent the majority of the year in the AHL with the Milwaukee Admirals, where he posted a stellar .933 save percentage and a 2.00 goals-against average in 26 games.
He recorded a shutout in his second start with the team and took home the CCM/AHL Player of the Week in December.
His work with Korn and the Predators organization helped rebuild his image enough that Darling signed a one-year, two-way contract with his hometown team in the summer of 2014. It was his first NHL contract, even though he was expected to spend the season as Michael Leighton’s backup in Rockford. Eventually, he jumped past Leighton on the depth chart — and that’s when the big break of his career came.
When Blackhawks starter Corey Crawford went down with an upper-body injury in October, it was the unheralded Darling that got the call-up. He made his NHL debut on Oct. 26 against the Ottawa Senators, making 32 saves in a 2-1 victory.
He spent the 2014-15 season bouncing between Rockford and the Blackhawks until mid-February. That’s when the Blackhawks recalled Darling and sent Crawford’s backup, Antii Raanta, down to the minors in a corresponding move.
Darling had won the job and the team immediately handed him a two-year contract extension. Darling rewarded the club about a month later with his first-ever NHL shutout against the New York Rangers at Madison Square Garden.
He finished the season (after 13 starts) with a .936 save percentage and 1.94 goals-against average.
Darling impressed his teammates so much that the young goaltender was the Blackhawks’ candidate for the Bill Masterton Trophy, which is awarded to the player that “exemplifies the qualities of perseverance, sportsmanship and dedication to hockey.”
On Wednesday, Darling faced the toughest test of his hockey career, and hardly flinched. The Blackhawks were down 3-0 to Nashville — Crawford allowed three goals on 12 shots — so they called upon Darling to replace the starter.
“Playing a playoff game of this magnitude and that situation, that’s one of the greatest relief performances you’re going to see,” Blackhawks head coach Joel Quenneville told reporters after the game.
Now, many are wondering if the Blackhawks will start the rookie goaltender in Game 2. Quite a career turnaround.