Rookie Saad picking up his game in Final
|Bill Smith / Chicago Blackhawks|
CHICAGO -- Brandon Saad's first full tour through the Stanley Cup Playoffs is almost a condensed rewind of his first regular season in the NHL.
"It's a mirror image," Saad said Friday after practice at United Center.
The Chicago Blackhawks aren't complaining about that at all, not after Saad's performance in Game 1 of the Stanley Cup Final on Wednesday. He scored his first goal of the playoffs and was a factor in all three zones in the 4-3 come-from-behind, triple-overtime win against the Boston Bruins.
Saad scored in the second period to cut what was a 2-0 Boston lead in half. He played more than 31 minutes and had nine of Chicago's 63 shots on goal. Marian Hossa was the only player in the game who had more shots on goal (10) than Saad.
Game 2 of the best-of-7 series is Saturday at United Center (8 p.m. ET; NBCSN, CBC, RDS).
"He's another one of those guys who has been around the net so much and had so many chances, but people don't really tend to notice until he finally scores one," Blackhawks captain Jonathan Toews said of Saad. "I'm sure it's a huge relief for him. As a line we played great, did some good things last game, and to have [Saad] back on the score sheet like that I think it gives him so much more confidence that he can go out there and make plays in every area of the rink. That's just what scoring goals does for you."
Saad eventually figured that out in the regular season, but not before he played eight effective yet unproductive games. He scored his first NHL goal in his ninth game but had three goals and no assists through his first 18 games despite playing on the top line with Toews and Hossa.
Blackhawks coach Joel Quenneville kept Saad there because he was playing well enough in other areas to be a difference-maker. The puck just wouldn't go in for him.
"I felt pretty good about the start of my season," Saad said, "just for some reason the bounces weren't there and I was gripping the stick a little too tight, so they weren't going in for me."
Saad eventually loosened up and production followed. He finished the season with 24 points over his last 28 games to become one of three finalists for the Calder Trophy, which will be awarded Saturday. Montreal Canadiens right wing Brendan Gallagher and Florida Panthers center Jonathan Huberdeau are the other finalists.
"I thought he had an outstanding regular season," Quenneville said of Saad.
Quenneville could not say the same about Saad's start to the playoffs. He had no goals and two assists through the first two rounds and was eventually moved to third-line duty in the Western Conference Semifinals against the Detroit Red Wings. He played a season-low 10:47 in Game 5.
"He was doing so many good things early in the season and he just wasn't getting points," Blackhawks and NBC color commentator Eddie Olczyk told NHL.com. "That wasn't the case early in the playoffs. He was there, but he wasn't generating. Realizing that you've got to take your game to another level, you've got to think faster and realize your next shift could be up and down and off is tough."
Saad admitted he was uncomfortable at the start of the playoffs. He was sort of in between, unsure if he should play aggressively or simplify his game.
"It's a learning experience," Saad said. "I knew it was going to be a challenge. Any time going into something new it's going to be a little bit different, but the more I've played the more comfortable I've gotten and the better I've played."
Saad has been more aggressive since the start of the Western Conference Final against the Los Angeles Kings. He had two assists in Game 2 and used his skating ability as a third-line left wing to help the Blackhawks eliminate the Kings in five games by exerting their speed game.
"The read of the game is always there, but in playoffs the intensity picks up and you've got to pick your speed and your physicality because your time and space is limited," Saad said. "I think my skating helps out for sure."
It took Quenneville one period to recognize that Saad was one of the forwards who had it going in Game 1 against the Bruins, so he moved him back up to the top line to play with Hossa and Toews. Saad scored off a feed from Hossa 3:08 into the second period, and that line had several chances in the overtimes before Andrew Shaw finally won it for the Blackhawks with a double-deflection goal off his leg.
"[Saad's] play has picked up in the latter rounds against L.A., and I like the way he played the last game as well," Quenneville said. "He's a big player. He can make plays. He's dangerous off the rush. [He] has a heck of a shot. [It's] nice to see him get that one. Hopefully he's more comfortable in the scoring area going forward."
Saad's comfort level, confidence and production shouldn't be a concern so long as he stays on the same trajectory he had in the regular season. So far he's right on pace.
"I think confidence comes with the maturity aspect of it, but he can skate and his skating ability allows him to get to a lot of those plays and to make plays," Olczyk said. "He's really good on back pressure because he's a real good skater and he can put himself in a position to help out. I think you can just see the relief of that goal. Now it seems like he's back in that comfort zone and he's back up there with the big line."