Emotions figure to run high for Darling when he faces Hawks on Saturday
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Scott Darling spent his entire childhood rooting for the Chicago Blackhawks. In the fourth grade, he even wrote that his dream was to play goalie one day for his hometown team.
Somehow, some way -- after overcoming more roadblocks than perhaps any professional athlete in the history of sports -- those dreams came true and he even helped the Hawks claim the Stanley Cup in 2015.
He spent the last two seasons as perhaps the best backup goalie in the league behind Corey Crawford, then parlayed that success into a lucrative deal with the Carolina Hurricanes last summer. Before leaving Chicago, though, Darling barely held it together during his end-of-season news conference at the United Center, and then wrote an emotional goodbye to the city of Chicago in the Players' Tribune in June.
"In writing this story, I got choked up four or five different times," wrote Darling, who is a recovering alcoholic. "Maybe that sounds ridiculous, but that's only if you don't know how low of a place I clawed my way up from."
So to say his emotions will be running high when he faces his former team for the first time Saturday might be the understatement of the season.
Carolina acquired Darling in May by giving the Hawks a third-round draft pick so they could negotiate with the 6-foot-6 Lemont native before he became a free agent on July 1.
It didn't take long for the sides to agreed upon a four-year, $16.6 million contract, a deal he earned after going 64-39-17 with a .923 save percentage and 2.37 goals-against average with the Hawks.
"I like the fact that we were aggressive in obtaining his rights," Carolina coach Bill Peters said in a phone interview. "It's been an excellent deal for both sides and he's played real well for us."
Carolina is basically Blackhawks East these days as Darling is one of six former Hawks on the roster. Also in Raleigh are forwards Teuvo Teravainen, Marcus Kruger and Joakim Nordstrom and D-men Trevor van Riemsdyk and Klas Dahlbeck. Kruger and van Riemsdyk came aboard about two months after Darling signed.
"I was really excited that they grabbed them -- obviously for their on-ice reasons, and just because they're great dudes too," Darling said. "It's nice to have friends in a place where you don't know a lot of people.
"Not just that. I love playing with TVR. I love the way he plays 'D'. And Krugs obviously, he goes to work every night."
Despite all the familiar faces, Darling admitted he didn't feel comfortable until about two weeks ago -- a fact that took him by surprise.
"I was kind of shocked because I'm so used to switching teams," said Darling, who played for 10 different organizations from 2010-15. "But I just got so comfortable in Chicago. And for me, it's not easy to get comfortable somewhere and feel part of a group, and really love the guys you're playing with and the organization. …
"It took me a little bit to adjust, but I'm getting there with the new group, new city."
Darling (4-3-3, .910, 2.35 GAA) got off to a slow start this season, allowing 3 or more goals in five of his first eight starts. He really stepped up in the last two games, though, turning away a combined 53 of 55 shots in a 2-1 overtime loss to Arizona and a 3-1 win over Florida.
In the postgame interview after the victory over the Panthers is where you can see how much Darling has grown as a leader. He's poised, confident, expects the best out of himself and expects his team to figure out how to win those tight contests.
"When you're tied going into the third period, you have to find a way to win the game," Darling said. "Don't wait for somebody else to do it. Go make it happen. That's something you just have to get instilled in your belief system as a team and we're getting there."
Peters also likes what he sees out of Darling.
"Real good human being," Peters said. "Real quality teammate. I know he's enjoyed the opportunity to become a number one guy in the NHL."
As for Darling's pedestrian record, it would look a lot better if the Hurricanes could figure out a way to score. Sixteen of the team's 35 goals came in three games; in the other 11, the Hurricanes have averaged 2.0.
Carolina (6-5-3) won at Columbus on Friday, and Peters put backup goalie Cam Ward in net so Darling could face his former mates Saturday.
Darling appreciated the move and is truly looking forward to facing his buddies. But he's also focused on the future -- one in which he hopes the Hurricanes become a consistent force in the Stanley Cup playoffs.
"Obviously I miss Chicago," Darling said. "I miss living there, I miss the guys.
"But I'm super happy in Raleigh, and the biggest thing for me is I wanted the opportunity to play every night. That's the opportunity they gave me here so I decided to come here and take that next step."
• Columbus Blue Jackets insider Brian Hedger contributed to this report.