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Scott Darling wasn’t the reason the Carolina Hurricanes lost, even if he admitted he’d like the first goal back and maybe could have done more to stop the second.
From where he was last year, that’s progress.
There was a lot to like in the goalie’s injury-delayed debut and just as much that was concerning. Still, Tuesday’s 3-2 loss to the Boston Bruins can be a building block for Darling, if not for the team, which has seen a promising start to the season descend into frustration and mediocrity with losses in five of its past seven games.
Suffice to say, a healthy amount was riding on Darling’s performance tonight: Not merely his first foray into the Hurricanes’ goaltending fray, but against one of the best teams in the NHL with the Hurricanes desperate to bounce back from a disheartening 2-1 home loss to the New York Islanders on Sunday.
This loss was no less deflating, with the Hurricanes leading 2-1 late in the second period before a bad change on the penalty kill allowed Patrice Bergeron to fire a pass the length of the rink to Brad Marchand on the left wing, who beat Darling to the far side from some distance – a snipe, to be sure, but also the kind of save that can change a game if your goalie can make it.
That was the turning point; Marchand shook off Justin Williams down the left wing and beat Darling with a wraparound for the game-winner in a third period the Bruins dominated.
Twelve games into the season, having fallen to the middle of the pack, the Hurricanes suddenly have a laundry list of issues. The Williams-Jordan Staal-Warren Foegele line hasn’t scored in seven games and Williams in particular struggled in these past two losses. Andrei Svechnikov is lost on one of two fourth lines and didn’t even get a shot at moving up with the Hurricanes chasing an equalizer on a night his first-period play should have earned him that opportunity. And the other fourth line, of Nicolas Roy, Brock McGinn and Valentin Zykov, is at risk of appendicitis it’s so ineffectual.
Sebastian Aho extended his season-opening point streak to 12 games, breaking Ron Francis’ franchise record and tying Wayne Gretzky and Ken Linesman for the NHL record for an assist streak to start the season, but he slumped in his locker afterward, his shin pads still on, disconsolate.
Amid all that, the brutal first goal Darling allowed – David Pastrnak’s shot from the goal line to Darling’s right was totally mishandled by Darling – barely registers, especially since Darling was solid to that point, diving across the crease to his left to deny Jake DeBrusk in his best save of several in the first half of the game.
“I felt great,” Darling said. “I would like a second chance at that first goal.”
It has taken four weeks to get a chance to see what Darling can actually do after a summer spent losing weight and gaining confidence, since as Hurricanes coach Rod Brind’Amour pointed out in training camp, the fact that Darling has attained the conditioning level of a professional athlete “doesn’t mean he can stop the puck.” Brind’Amour wasn’t being sarcastic; until tonight, no one really knew whether what Darlling did in the gym (and the weight room, and the yoga studio) would translate on the ice.
A promising preseason was derailed by a hamstring injury in his final appearance, which postponed things until now and allowed Petr Mrazek to stake his claim to the net in Darling’s absence. Mrazek still has the upper hand after Tuesday, although both will likely play in the back-to-back that takes the Hurricanes to Arizona on Friday and Vegas on Saturday to begin a four-game trip out west.
The Hurricanes need more from Darling, but he may yet be able to deliver. It’s far too soon to say. There was enough good Tuesday to overlook the bad.
It’s not too soon to say the joy and optimism of the Hurricanes’ start has faded. There was enough bad Tuesday to overwhelm the good.
Sports columnist Luke DeCock: 919-829-8947, email@example.com, @LukeDeCock