As a miserable day came to a close, Scott Darling faced his net, wielded his stick over his head like a shillelagh and seriously contemplated smashing it over the crossbar. It was the sixth goal he had given up on the afternoon, the second in six seconds and the third of four in the game he would surrender over his glove hand.
“I restrained myself on that one,” Darling told thn.com after his team’s 8-1 loss to the Toronto Maple Leafs Tuesday afternoon. “It’s not really my style to have a meltdown.”
When the Hurricanes acquired Darling this past summer for a third-round pick and promptly signed him to a four-year, $16.6 million contract, they thought they had found their heir apparent to Cam Ward and divested themselves of any uncertainty in the crease. But it hasn’t turned out that way. Darling has struggled with consistency in his first year as a No. 1 goaltender and the Hurricanes find themselves four points out of a playoff spot. That’s not all due to Darling’s struggles this season, but it’s certainly a significant part of the problem.
There are two things holding back the Hurricanes from being the contending team that many think they can become. Despite the fact they are third in the NHL in shots per game (34.76), fourth in fewest shots allowed per game (29.7) and have the largest disparity in the NHL between shots taken and allowed per game (5.06), the Hurricanes find themselves losing games they should be winning. Some of that is on goaltending, as it was Tuesday afternoon in Toronto, and some of it is on the fact that the Hurricanes are sitting fourth-last in the league with a 7.8 shooting percentage.
Analytics will tell you that the Hurricane shooters are having some bad luck and that could turn around at any time. Much more uncertain, though, is how their goalies are going to respond. For example, Darling was coming off what most feel was his best game of the season in a 2-1 over Columbus on the weekend, then had what was by all accounts his worst game three days later.
And that was the risk the Hurricanes took when they made such an all-in commitment to him over the summer. After a small sample size while playing backup for a perennial contender, Darling was called upon to become the No. 1 man for a team that is trying to become a contender. That is a whole different kind of pressure. And it will be up to Darling and Darling alone to determine whether he is up to the task. It has been a bumpy ride so far, but Darling does have some time to straighten out his game.
“It’s been kind of an up-and-down season for me,” Darling told thn.com. “Great game, not-so-great game. I can’t really put my (finger) on it. It’s still just goaltending, right? So I don’t really know why I’m having consistency issues. Maybe it’s just the adjustment to a new team, new city, new everything. My whole life is different now, so I’m sure all that stuff factors into it.”
Some backups go from the kind of situation Darling had in Chicago to becoming a No. 1 elsewhere and respond positively, a lot do not. Take Jonathan Bernier as an example. He was an 11th overall pick who was usurped by Jonathan Quick, then came to the Maple Leafs as the No. 1 man and never displayed the consistency that was necessary to be a No. 1 goaltender on a contending team. Billy Smith, on the other hand, went from being a farmhand and backup in Los Angeles to the Hall of Fame.
With new owner Thomas Dundon along for the trip, dressed inconspicuously in a ball cap and team-issued windbreaker, the Hurricanes did not come as advertised. Along with the goaltending issue, there were a good number of breakdowns and terrible play on both sides of the special teams. But the Hurricanes were in the game right until the third period and seemed intent on trying to claw their way back in the game. Hurricanes coach Bill Peters was sure to spread the blame around, which is a good tactic given that Darling is their man both in the short- and long-term. With a game in two nights on the road against the powerful Nashville Predators, Darling was asked how he would put the Toronto game behind him.
“Just completely forgetting about this,” Darling said. “It never happened. I’ve already forgotten about it.”
In this case, amnesia would be a wise course of action. Chances are, Darling will want to apply that approach to most of the first third of his season in Carolina. He will certainly want to distance himself from his performance so far and whether or not the promising Hurricanes make the playoffs or spend their ninth straight year watching them on television will be in large part dependent upon how well Darling is able to do that.
BABS THE COMEDIAN: Putting the brakes on a three-game losing streak can bring anyone’s spirits up and Leafs coach Mike Babcock is no exception. Asked if his team had a scouting report to shoot high glove side on Darling, Babcock quipped: “We have a scouting report on every goalie but you’d think we didn’t have one for the last month.” When talking about Mitch Marner, who scored his first goal in 16 games, he said, “I heard lots of shots coming off the ice, ‘Mitch you were really good in the first, you’ve got your classmates here, you’re trying to impress them…First time we’ve played a game that wasn’t after your bed time,’ and all that stuff.”
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