Blackhawks

Blackhawks goalie Scott Darling taking advantage of No. 1 reps

Blackhawks goalie Scott Darling taking advantage of No. 1 reps

Life as a backup goaltender can be difficult. 

The job entails being prepared at all times and performing at a high level when your number is called despite going sometimes weeks without seeing any action.

With Corey Crawford backing up Team Canada at the World Cup of Hockey, Scott Darling is getting the No. 1 reps in the crease for the Blackhawks.

And he's taking full advantage of that.

"Yeah, obviously I miss Corey, but it's fun to be the guy right now," Darling said following a 2-0 loss in Wednesday's preseason opener to the Pittsburgh Penguins. "I'll take any starts I can get. I don't care if it's regular season or preseason, I just want to play as much as I can. It was nice to get the first game under my belt."

After facing just three shots in the first period, Darling stayed on his toes by denying all 23 shots he saw in the second period — a handful of them on the penalty kill.

"I definitely don't like sitting there," Darling said of the first period. "I don't think they had a shot for about 12 minutes, but you've got to learn how to play in those situations too. It's nice to get some game feels."

Darling finished with 33 saves overall in the Blackhawks' loss and was sharp in the first dress rehearsal of the year as both goals were out of his control — a redirect on the power play and a rebound tap-in at the doorstep, both by Chris Kunitz.

Credit his strong play to working hard in the offseason and maximizing on the opportunity he's been given.

"Darling certainly was a standout, not only when we got a little bit overwhelmed in the second period, but really throughout the game," Blackhawks assistant coach Kevin Dineen said. "He was certainly a positive, which we always expect out of him but I think it's a testament to the way he prepared himself this summer and I think it certainly showed tonight." 

Darling doesn't get many chances to anchor the blue paint on a nightly basis.

He started in 24 games last season, 11 of which came during the final portion of the season in March and April when Crawford was dealing with an upper-body injury.

[SHOP: Gear up, Blackhawks fans!]

Darling said that stretch was "probably the best I've ever felt" because you know you're the guy, which eliminates the stress factor of turning in a great performance to earn your next start.

He finished the 2015-16 campaign with a 12-8-4 record, 2.58 goals against average and .915 save percentage, including one shutout.

Not bad, not great. 

This season is a chance to prove he can continue to be a consistent and reliable goaltender in any situation, and when the 27-year-old Lemont native gets the opportunity to represent the team he grew up rooting for — something he never loses sight of — Darling expects to be on top of his game when called upon.

"I'm seriously excited to be on the Chicago Blackhawks still," he said. "I just want to play the best I can when they give me a chance to play."

Artemi Panarin and desperate Rangers set to face Blackhawks

Artemi Panarin and desperate Rangers set to face Blackhawks

When you see a highlight of Artemi Panarin making a dazzling play — usually that results in the puck finding the back of the net — you can't help but think, 'He'd really look good in a Hawks sweater... again.'

Alex DeBrincat struggling to one-time the puck from the left circle the way he used to on the man advantage is one of the factors giving the Hawks the NHL's worst power play. Artemi Panarin was the guy who used to do that for the Blackhawks, and he rarely missed. 

Alas, the man of bread is locked up for six more years after this one with the Rangers at an AAV north of $11.6 million and his contract has a no movement clause. 

In June 2017, the Blackhawks traded the dynamic winger to the Columbus Blue Jackets, along with forward Tyler Motte and a draft pick, to re-acquire Brandon Saad and get goalie Anton Forsberg and a pick. 

Panarin, now 28, had 151 points (61 goals, 90 assists) with Chicago in two seasons after signing a free agent contract on May 1, 2015. He previously played in the Kontinental Hockey League. 

The 2016 Calder Trophy winner had 169 points (55 goals, 114 assists) in two seasons with the Blue Jackets before signing with the Rangers as a free agent. 

This year, his 78 points (29 goals, 49 assists) are good for fifth in the league. 

Last year, Panarin returned to the United Center ahead of becoming a free agent and had a friendly competition with Patrick Kane to see who would be last of the ice following warmups. Kane isn't sure there will be time for pregame shenanigans with his pal before Wednesday's game.

"I think we got that faceoff tonight (40th anniversary of Miracle on Ice ceremonial puck drop with Jack O'Callahan), so it'll be interesting to see what comes of that," Kane said. "I always try to be the last on my team, not really worry about the other team, but he's having a great season. 

"Obviously an amazing player, a player that you'd pay to watch play the game. Still try to stay pretty close with him and stay in contact and just kind of catch up here and there throughout the season."

Panarin has meant a lot to a Rangers team desperate to claw back into the playoff picture while sitting eight points out, just like the Hawks.

"Unbelievable," New York center Ryan Strome (brother of Chicago center Dylan Strome) said of Panarin. "The way he controls the puck, the way he controls the play, you guys were lucky enough to see it for a few years here. 

"I think he's better now than he was then. His game's growing, he competes on pucks really hard and he's been a silent leader for us. I think everyone sees how hard he plays and how hard he works and we follow. He's been our catalyst and he's done everything we could ask of him, so he's been great."

Strome thinks the Bread Man should be in the MVP conversation as well.

"Yeah, especially if we get in the playoffs here," he said. "It would be hard not to consider him. His numbers are ridiculous. I've seen some stats about Jaromir Jagr and some ex-Rangers that have put up similar numbers to him. To be in that category is pretty special. 

"You guys have seen it firsthand, the way he acts and how much fun he has doing it I think just rubs off on everyone, too. In such a serious season and such a serious business we're in, I think to have a guy like him, he's doing his leg kick and he's lightening the mood a little bit, that stuff is contagious. That's part of his personality and part of what makes him a great player."

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Zack Smith feels fortunate after coming 'millimeter' away from season-ending injury

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USA Today

Zack Smith feels fortunate after coming 'millimeter' away from season-ending injury

Zack Smith knew immediately something was wrong. Not because of the pain but because of what happened.

In the final minute of the second period against Vancouver on Feb. 12, Smith had his left hand stepped on by a Canucks player. The television broadcast didn't pick it up, but Smith quickly threw his glove off and went straight to the locker room fearing the worst.

"It wasn't a very painful thing when it happened, it just happened and I was like, 'That's not good,'" Smith said. "You feel a skate blade step on your hand, you know it's not going to look good. The trainers said they couldn't believe there wasn't blood on the glove because I just threw it off right away and went to the bench. I was pretty worried there for a bit, and then right away doctors were able to tell me, 'It's going to be fine. Just a few stitches.' Just a short time of panic."

Smith did not return to the game, but that was the least of his worries. And the Blackhawks, who weren't exactly sure what happened.

"Yeah, scary thing," head coach Jeremy Colliton said. "I didn’t see it so when he came off I thought he broke his wrist or something, we didn’t really know in the moment. But when you hear what happened and see the cut, it’s not a good situation. So, obviously happy that it’s not too serious."

It could've been much worse for Smith, who practiced with the team at morning skate on Wednesday and is inching closer to a return. He was close to a potential long-term injury but is now back on the ice less than a week after the injury occurred.

"It was probably a millimeter away from being the end of my season," Smith said. "I got very lucky. A couple of stitches and a few days off is all it's taken."

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