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Saad taking game to new heights for Blackhawks

by Brian Hedger / Chicago Blackhawks

CHICAGO -- Brandon Saad is developing into an elite two-way forward for the Chicago Blackhawks, and the game he helped win Wednesday at United Center might someday be looked upon as the night he made the jump from good to great.

Saad was one of the most dominant players on the ice for the Blackhawks in Game 5 of the Western Conference Final against the Los Angeles Kings, a game they had to win to avoid elimination. He scored in the first period and assisted on Chicago's last two goals in a 5-4 double-overtime win. His second assist was a beautiful feed to Michal Handzus for the game-winner.

But Saad was just as good in areas of the game that aren't as easily noticed.

"He was amazing last night," Blackhawks coach Joel Quenneville said Thursday at O'Hare Airport before the defending Stanley Cup champions flew to Los Angeles. "I thought he's had some games like that over the course of the season, when he takes it to a different level. He has that ability to play a high-level game, almost like an impact player. Not too many guys make an impact like he did last night. He's had one of those games you'll always remember."

The Kings will probably remember it heading into Game 6 on Friday at Staples Center (9 p.m. ET; NBCSN, CBC, RDS). Los Angeles coach Darryl Sutter will probably try to match his best defenders against Saad's line, which includes right wing Patrick Kane and center Andrew Shaw. That line combined for one goal, eight assists and a plus-10 rating in Game 5, with Saad and Kane assisting on Handzus' game-winner.

Saad, 21, hounded the puck all night, using bursts of speed to check and create plays all over the ice. He controlled the puck and worked in impressive unison with Shaw and Kane in their initial time together during the postseason.

Saad and Kane played together previously and their playing styles often mesh.

"It was a fun game playing with them, too," Kane said afterward. "They're both extremely hard workers. Personally, I thought Saad was the best player on the ice [Wednesday]. He was bringing so much speed and puck protection. He was awesome.

It was nice for the Blackhawks to see Saad take what appeared to be a big step in his career development. After Chicago took him with the 43rd pick in the 2012 NHL Draft, Saad's future has always seemed destined for a role in the Blackhawks' top-six forwards. His size, skill and skating ability almost dictate it.

That's where he played for almost his entire rookie season in 2013, on the top line next to center Jonathan Toews and opposite right wing Marian Hossa, until Quenneville changed it up during the Stanley Cup Playoffs. Saad struggled with consistency in the postseason last spring and didn't regain a spot in the top six.

He got a brief look at center on the second line during training camp last fall before Quenneville scrapped that idea during the preseason. Instead, Saad played on either wing for any of the top three lines, fitting in wherever Quenneville put him.

Toward the end of the regular season, Saad was benched for an important game against the St. Louis Blues as a wake-up call. It worked; he bounced back strong down the stretch and has continued his improved play during the postseason.

Saad, who has five goals and eight assists in the playoffs, was solid in the first two rounds. He's turned it up even more in this series with three goals and three assists.

"[I've] felt pretty good all playoffs, but to be able to produce and help out the team in that way, that always helps with confidence and bringing your game to the next level," Saad said. "You always look for new challenges, and any time you can elevate your game and produce and help the team win, that obviously helps out with your confidence and moving up."

Saad's confidence was unmistakable in Game 5. Not only was he a threat with the puck, but teammates and fans could tell he felt in total control just by watching him bang his stick on the ice to call for the puck. He got what he wanted more often than not.

"What I saw last night in him was probably one of his best games I've ever seen him play," defenseman Michal Rozsival said Thursday. "He played with so much confidence. By looking at him, it looked like he wanted to be the guy, the guy that makes a difference in the game, and he did."

Toews, one of the NHL's top two-way forwards, noticed bits and pieces of Saad's toolkit while centering for him last season. He knew those skills would someday manifest into another high-end forward for the talent-laden Blackhawks. This series might be evidence that Saad's time to shine is just about here.

"My biggest thing I saw with [Saad] was not only his skill and ability at his age, but also that element that he always wanted to improve and get better and better as the season went along," Toews said. "I think you see that same kind of idea come in, in a game like last night, where he's never satisfied and he wants to be a difference-maker. I don't know if I can think of a game I've seen him play better than he was [that] night. He was unbelievable. That's what it takes. That's the pace we need to find a way to win against this team, guys like that stepping up."

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