NEW YORK – There may not be a better story in the National Hockey League today than the one Chicago Blackhawks goaltender Scott Darling has.
“This is a dream come true, you couldn’t write it any better so far,” he cracked to ECHL.com after posting his first career NHL shutout against the New York Rangers at Madison Square Garden on March 18.
But let’s try anyway.
At least at the game’s highest level, little was known about the big 26-year-old heading into the 2014-15 season. He’d been largely off the NHL radar…in fact, he was about as far off as you can get. The 6-foot-6 netminder had made previous stops in the SPHL and had suited up for three different ECHL teams as recently as just last season before finally getting an opportunity with his hometown Blackhawks.
Team captain Jonathan Toews said he knew “just a little” about Darling coming into the season, noting that he was aware “he’d been kind of all over the place,” but that was about it.
“But he’s showing that he has skill and can sustain it for a long time,” Toews told ECHL.com in the visiting locker room after the game.
“He’s been solid all over the place when he’s played for us. I think it’s huge for teams nowadays to have great goaltenders the way we do. When ‘Crow’ needs the night off, he’s been there for us.”
A former standout at the University of Maine, Darling entered the pro ranks with the SPHL’s Louisiana IceGators and Mississippi RiverKings, where he spent the first two years of his career aside from one largely forgettable game each with the Florida Everblades and Central Hockey League’s Wichita Thunder in 2011-12.
But he got his first real opportunity at the Double-A level with the Wheeling Nailers in 2012-13 and made the most of it, posting a 2.80 goals against average and .907 save percentage in 32 games. But even while that setting is far from the glamour of the NHL, he says he never let himself think about giving up on his childhood dream.
“Through the whole journey, you’ve got to stay in the moment and see the wood in front of you, and that’s what I’ve always tried to do,” he said. “I’ve always just been excited to play, whether it be against the Trenton Devils, Albany Devils or New Jersey Devils. Whatever it may be, I’m just fortunate to play hockey, and it’s been a lot of fun.”
Darling earned a brief call-up to the AHL that year, but finally put himself on the map at that level last year while with the Nashville Predators organization. Although he also played in six games for the Cincinnati Cyclones, his year was largely spent with the Milwaukee Admirals.
After a 2.00 goals against average and dazzling .933 save percentage in 26 games at the highest level of the minors, Darling was an overnight hot commodity four seasons in the making, and the Lemont, Ill. native happily agreed to a two-way contract with the Blackhawks. He outplayed veteran Michael Leighton with Rockford this season, and when Antti Raanta faltered, it was Darling who got the call to serve as Corey Crawford’s backup.
But it was at “The World’s Most Famous Arena” where he recorded that milestone, a 1-0 win over the New York Rangers, who were regarded as arguably the top team in the league at that time. After Toews made sure he had the frozen rubber memento fresh off the ice from his big game, Darling was able to humbly reflect on what he’d accomplished.
“It’s just so cool to play here in this famous arena,” he said. “You see it on TV all the time and you hear about it so much, so I was really excited to play here.”
Added Toews: “It’s huge for him and we’re happy. He got that first one under his belt, but he’s stepped in and played great hockey for us. Tonight, especially late, when you have a team with that amount of skill, they’re going to press. It was a pretty similar game that we played a couple weeks ago in Chicago, a tight-checking game with good goaltending on both sides. It was great for Scotty to get the shutout.”