CHICAGO — Scott Darling doesn’t need reminding that those other saves, the ones that win playoff games, wouldn’t have happened without the first one.

The 6-foot-6 rookie goaltender – who once was thrown off the University of Maine team for drinking – may be the toast of Chicago at the moment, but he had to learn to put down his own beer first.

Four years after Darling nearly hit bottom personally and professionally, he has stepped in twice for Blackhawks starter Corey Crawford and become the defensive anchor for the team he followed as a kid.

Darling stopped 35 shots in the 4-2 victory Sunday that nudged the Blackhawks back in front of the Nashville Predators in their first-round playoff series, 2-1. After playing just 14 games in the regular season, he was called in to relieve a shaky Crawford after the first period of Game 1, and promptly played his way into the NHL record book – longest relief stint by a keeper (almost 68 minutes) without allowing a goal.

But Darling was back on the bench for Game 2 and after being named the starter for Game 3, struggled early.

After each of the Blackhawks’ first two scores, Darling got beat barely a half-minute later. That would be enough to spook lots of goalies, let alone a rookie with nearly two dozen family members sprinkled among 22,000-plus rabid fans.

“To be honest, there was a lot of ‘Do I really belong here?’ when I first got here,” Darling recalled afterward. “And I’m trying hard, even now, to stop saying that to myself.”

Darling, 26, was wide-eyed when he arrived, if only because of where he’d been. He grew up in Chicago’s far south suburbs, a prospect who figured to find his way back home with the big club someday. Instead he picked up a drinking habit at Maine.

What followed were a few stops in the far-flung lower rungs of minor-league hockey, places like Louisiana and Las Vegas. Worse, Darling was often out of shape and running out of patience, but luckily not friends. Two coaches who’d seen potential in him early, Brian Daccord and Mitch Korn, stuck with Darling on the long road back up. They helped him with training and conditioning, but only after he proved he was willing to help himself.

Darling said even at the lowest point, after being cut from what might have been the worst team in organized hockey, he never forgot something his father told him about getting ahead: “It was kind of like his motto – ‘Saw the wood that’s in front of you,’ ” Darling recalled with a chuckle. He uses it even now to refocus himself on the task at hand.

The first Nashville goal was a slap shot from Mike Ribeiro, wide open because of a defensive lapse and barely 15 feet from the net; the second a screened shot from the left point by Mattias Ekholm. It was hard to tell whether either goal rattled Darling at the time because he played nearly flawlessly the rest of the way.

Afterward, though, Darling was still rankled about not stopping the first one. He was braced for a full-speed slap shot and Ribeiro didn’t get all of the puck – “a knuckleball,” Darling called it ruefully, “that didn’t go where either of us expected it to.”

But the moment after that, he agreed to a reporter’s request and eagerly showed off the custom-made helmet he ordered when he got to town.

With a newly inked two-year contract extension, Darling figures there’s a good chance the helmet will see lots of action. But he insists he still considers Crawford the No. 1.

“I’d do anything to have the success he’s had. I can’t say how much I’m learning from him every day,” Darling said. “He still hates it when our guys score on him in practice.”

The Predators aren’t going to get in the middle of what’s become an interesting dilemma for Blackhawks Coach Joel Quenneville, who announced Monday that Darling will start again on Tuesday night in Game 4. They say they don’t care whether he picks Darling or Crawford.

“It’s about our team and what we’ve got to do as a team to create offense and get some shots on net,” Ribeiro said. “It doesn’t really matter which one’s in net.”

Try telling that to Chicago.