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Blackhawks' Saad continues to shine in Cup Final

by Brian Hedger

CHICAGO -- Brandon Saad's goal was memorable, his speed burst on the game-winner remarkable, but his defensive play in the final minute of Game 4 of the 2015 Stanley Cup Final was indelible.

The Chicago Blackhawks clung to a one-goal lead by their fingertips in what turned out to be a 2-1 victory at United Center on Wednesday to tie the best-of-7 series 2-2.

Tampa Bay Lightning defenseman Anton Stralman got the puck at the right point with 37 seconds left in the third period and readied for a wrist shot. Saad read Stralman's mind, dropped to a knee and blocked the shot with his right skate, sending the puck out of the Blackhawks zone to burn some precious time.

"He's one heck of a player," Chicago forward Andrew Desjardins said. "He's got the skating ability, but it's also smarts, and he's one of those guys [who] sacrifices himself to do the right things. He's the total package. Big goal [he scored], but just a huge block too. That block with 20, 30 seconds left, or whatever it was there … huge."

Spearheaded by Saad's two-way performance, the Blackhawks are feeling better about themselves heading to Amalie Arena for Game 5 on Saturday (8 p.m. ET; NBC, CBC, TVA Sports).

After scoring 23 goals in the regular season, Saad has eight in the 2015 Stanley Cup Playoffs, including one in each of the past two games of the Final.

"He's way better now than he was in September," Chicago center Brad Richards said of Saad. "[He's] just growing up, getting confident. He's so powerful. I've never seen such a young kid so even keel. I don't think anything bothers him."

That was evident on his Game 4 goal, which he scored at 6:22 of the third period to break a 1-1 tie. After collecting the puck off a draw at the left faceoff dot, Saad barreled his way around Stralman and cut through the goal crease in front of rookie goalie Andrei Vasilevskiy.

Despite a poke check by Vasilevskiy that briefly jarred the puck from his stick, Saad hit the brakes and took a backhand whack at the puck that sent it into the net between the goalie's pads.

"I was really pretty lucky," Saad said. "I just saw space going to the net, tried to drive and create some chaos. Goalie made a good play with poking the puck. Bounced around my feet. Finally found it to my stick. Just tried to get some wood on it and get it to the net and found a way through his legs. Really it was trying to get to the net, create some chaos; it found a way in."

Saad scored to give Chicago a 2-1 lead early in the third period of Tampa Bay's Game 3 victory on Monday. This time his goal stood up as the game-winner.

"He's a fun player to watch," Blackhawks forward Patrick Sharp said. "Seems like, I don't know, what is he, 21 years old? He looks like a grown man out there. He takes the puck, tells everybody what he's going to do with it and bulls people over and gets to that net either way. It's nice to see him putting the puck in the net."

Saad is 22, but Sharp's point is no less accurate.

Saad, who grew up in a Pittsburgh suburb, is developing into an elite player like the Pittsburgh Penguins he idolized as a kid. He mentions Mario Lemieux and Jaromir Jagr as a couple of his childhood favorites, but he's most often compared to another former Penguins forward.

That player, Marian Hossa, is now his teammate and often plays on the opposite wing of the same line. Saad isn't as prolific of a goal-scorer as Hossa was when he was younger, but he's quite comparable to the two-way player Hossa has become. Each is a big, strong forward who can impose his will with the puck on his stick and blow past defenders with uncommon speed bursts.

Stralman, for one, has discovered that in this series.

"Good player, good speed, good shot," Stralman said. "He has all the abilities that you want from a good winger. I think he is a good fit for them with his speed."

Saad's speed is what's getting talked about most these days. The past two games against the speedy Lightning, it's been a nice tool to utilize for the Blackhawks, who needed seven grueling games against the Anaheim Ducks to get out of the Western Conference Final.

Saad's afterburners have always been there, but not always when he had the puck. Now, the puck usually stays glued to his stick when he floors the gas pedal.

"I think he feels like he skates faster with the puck on his stick," Sharp said. "He's got that long, lanky stride, but it's so powerful. He's a tough guy to knock off the puck."

Richards put it a different way.

"It looks like he's just out for a Sunday stroll sometimes," Richards said. "He's three strides and he's beating people down the ice."

When he's not, there's a good chance you can find Saad hunting down the puck or putting his body in front of it; it's like having two Hossas. No wonder Blackhawks coach Joel Quenneville flashed a grin during his postgame press conference Wednesday.

"He's been great," Quenneville said of Saad. "I love his game tonight … a great power move to the net. He gives us speed. I can use him in all situations. He's fast. He's big. He's strong. He's dangerous. Very good performance."

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