When Scott Darling began playing hockey when he was four years old, he was a forward.
“But I [stunk],” said Darling who, at age five, became a goaltender.
The University of Maine freshman certainly hasn’t [stunk] between the pipes, where he enters tonight’s Hockey East road game at the University of Vermont with the nation’s second-lowest goals-against average (0.99) and second-best save percentage (.960).
“My dad [Scott] was a goalie. He got me into it,” explained Darling, a sixth round draft choice (153rd overall) of the Phoenix Coyotes.
The 6-foot-5, 200-pound Darling has been a model of consistency so far. He hasn’t allowed more than two goals in any of his seven starts. He is 5-1-1 with two shutouts for the 7-3-1 Bears.
Darling has been surprised by his early success.
“You don’t expect it to happen but I fit in well with the way the team plays defense,” said Darling. “It really works for my style. Everything has come together nicely.”
“He is very composed,” said Providence College coach Tim Army. “He’s very controlled yet he’s very quick around his net. He reads the play well and moves efficiently. He doesn’t get scrambly on rebounds. He’ll make the initial save, see the puck, get over there and stay square [to the puck]. He stays upright and uses his big frame to take away a lot of the net. He doesn’t panic.”
Darling said his biggest focus has been to minimize his movement.
“I used to rely on my athleticism too much. I spent way too much time diving across [the net front] to make a save. I could just as easily have slid across [more under control] in the butterfly ,” said Darling. “When you dive across after you make the first save, you’re out of commission [for second and third shots]. When you butterfly over, you can get square and stay tall so you’re ready for the second and third shots. That’s really helped me so far this year.”
He credits his teammates with playing a vital role in his success. Darling, back-up Dave Wilson and the Bears have a 1.64 goals-against average which is fifth-best in the nation.
“The guys have been blocking shots and keeping the shots to the outside. That’s made my life easy,” said Darling, who was a United States Hockey League All-Star last season when he was 27-8-2 with a 3.00 GAA and a .908 save percentage for the Indiana Ice.
Maine senior center Chris Hahn pointed out that Darling has made a number of “timely“ saves including several in the first period to prevent the Bears from falling behind.
“Falling behind could kill us but Scott has been real good in first periods,” said Hahn.
“He’s very, very solid. He’s got size and he plays the puck well,” said Vermont coach Kevin Sneddon who feels his Catamounts are going to have to shoot whenever they can and generate second and third shots to beat Darling.
Darling, a native of Lemont, Ill., said college hockey is much different than junior hockey.
“The biggest difference is the traffic in front of the net. Guys are going to the net and trying to screen you in college. Lucky for me, I can generally see over them,” said Darling. “You don’t have guys getting their noses dirty in front of the net in junior hockey like you do in college.”
He also said “everything is quicker. They get their shots off a half-second quicker, the passes are a little bit crisper, the guys see the ice a bit better.”
He said volunteer goalie coach Dave Alexander has been extremely helpful in his development.
“We’re clicking real well. I’ve already seen a lot of improvement in my game,” said Darling who added that he “loves” doing video work.
“He’s a really good goalie,” said Maine sophomore left wing Glenn Belmore. “He makes our defensive job real easy. He makes the first save and swallows the puck up.”
“You’ll make a move on him and think you’ve got a slam-dunk but, all of a sudden, those tree-trunk legs will come out and kick the puck out,” said sophomore defenseman Mike Banwell. “He isn’t flashy. He keeps things plain and simple and he does a great job of it.”
Darling was suspended for one game for missing a workout but he said he won’t let it happen again.
“It was a bonehead mistake by me but [Wilson] played a great game [against Merrimack] and we got the win [2-1]. I’ve got a couple more alarms [clocks] now,” he said.
He knows he will be facing a stiff challenge against a Vermont team that has won four straight including a sweep of Boston University in Boston.
“They’re on a roll right now. They’ve won some big games. I’m really looking forward to it,” said the 19-year-old Darling.