NHL playoff notes: Corey Crawford raises questions for Blackhawks, Predators must stay out of penalty box in Game 2.
1. Scott Darling for Conn Smythe.
Paul Kariya went “off the floor, on the board,” in the 2003 Stanley Cup finals. Darling, the Blackhawks’ third-string goalie for most of the season, went from the minors and into the history books when he made 42 saves, many of them spectacular, after Corey Crawford was pulled during the first intermission of Game 1. Darling, who was in the Predators’ organization last year, allowed his team to weather a first overtime onslaught before Duncan Keith’s game-winner at the 7:49 mark of the second overtime. In the process, Darling set a postseason mark for longest stretch of relief play without allowing a goal (67:44), breaking the old record of 56:00 set by Curtis Joseph of the Flames in a 4–3 win over the Sharks on April 13, 2008.
Darling also became only the second goalie in NHL history to win in his playoff debut while playing more than 60 minutes of shutout hockey. The other: the Red Wings’ Normie Smith, who weathered six OTs in the league’s longest playoff game, a 1–0 win over the Canadiens in March 1936. Not since Ed Belfour in 1990 has Chicago had a rookie goalie win his first postseason outing.
Now the obvious question: Why wouldn’t coach Joel Quenneville go back to him for Game 2? Darling did everything humanly possible to secure the start. But Crawford won the Stanley Cup in 2013, and—before the series—was being heralded as statistically-indistinguishable from Nashville’s Pekka Rinne. Quenneville said during the game that Crawford’s removal was not just meant to spark the team. It was also done out of genuine concern for how poorly his starter had played. The second goal he surrendered was especially egregious, as he languidly turned the puck over behind his cage, allowing Viktor Stalberg to score into an open net.
Ultimately, Quenneville is damned if he does, damned if he doesn’t. If Darling stays in and turns into a pumpkin, Game 1 could be remembered as the moment that the Predators lost the battle but won the war. If Crawford returns and struggles, the Hawks’ bench boss will take a lot of obvious flak for not playing the hot hand. Either way, a Chicago victory in Game 2 would go a long way toward avoiding a full-blown controversy.
2. Predators must not box themselves in.
Nashville was the fifth-best team in the league this season at staying out of the penalty box, but you wouldn’t have known it in Game 1, during which they allowed two brutal power play goals in the process of blowing a once comfortable three-goal lead. Technically, the penalty minutes for the game were even at 12 a side, but the Predators really put themselves in a hole by taking penalties while ahead and giving the Blackhawks a 5-on-3 opportunity.
Nashville fans groused that the refs were blind and that Chicago was diving—partisans were particularly incensed about Taylor Beck not receiving a penalty shot after being hauled down by Duncan Keith in OT. (I'm not sure it was a penalty.) Still, the Preds’ worst wounds were self-inflicted. Shea Weber gets away with a lot of gratuitous contact, but he got drawn into a retaliatory slash that created the Blackhawks’ game-changing 5-on-3. Nashville won’t survive a special teams battle with Chicago. The Predators need to stay out of the Plexiglas purgatory in Game 2 and beyond.
3. Seth Jones can build on his big playoff debut.
I figure I should write something positive about Nashville. This is just Game 2 of the playoffs after all. And Jones—an X-factor for many pundits before the series—showed a lot of promise. He’s made a habit of performing well on the biggest stages, scoring some exciting overtime and game-winning goals (weirdly enough, often in Canada) early during his young career. When Jones gets going, he’s every bit the unstoppable force that many observers predicted before the 2013 draft. He showed a lot of poise when creating cross-ice rushes on his own, and when trying to improvise scoring chances in OT. His ice time could increase as the series progresses, especially if Cody Franson returns from injury, allowing Ryan Ellis to slot into the third pairing.