CHICAGO -- It's been kind of a surreal season for Chicago Blackhawks rookie Brandon Saad.
After Chicago picked him in the second round of last summer's 2011 NHL Draft (No. 43) -- later than many expected -- he dazzled during training camp and in preseason contests. The 19-year old forward also landed a spot in the starting lineup for the Hawks' first two games of the regular season before being sent back to junior hockey.
Now, after starring for the Saginaw Spirit of the Ontario Hockey League, Saad is back with the Hawks and could be more of an "Ace in the Hole" than a Black Ace. Saad will start Thursday night's Game 4 of a Western Conference Quarterfinal series against the Phoenix Coyotes and could be a top-six forward.
"I think just knowing I've [already] played in the League a bit helps me out," Saad said after Chicago's morning skate. "I was definitely nervous at the start of the season, but since I've been a part of it a little bit, it's more exciting this time of year."
After heading back to Saginaw, Saad finished second on his team with a career-high 34 goals and 42 assists for an impressive 76 points in just 44 regular-season games -- leading the OHL with a 1.73 points-per game average. He's also put on some good weight and hopes the added muscle helps him be stronger on the puck.
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"Just being up here and seeing how they run things is something I took back with me and I had a great year with it," said Saad, who's originally from Gibsonia, Pa. "I think I improved a lot … in just my all-around game and bringing it every night."
Saad probably wouldn't be getting this opportunity in the middle of a playoff series if not for an upper-body injury to Hawks forward Marian Hossa, who was knocked out of Game 3 after a hit by Phoenix forward Raffi Torres. There's no telling how long Hossa could be out, so Saad could find himself in there again when the series shifts back to Phoenix this weekend.
Saad, however, doesn't want to get caught up in trying to replace Hossa. There's a chance he might start out where he also started back in early October -- on the left side of Chicago's top line with Hawks star captain Jonathan Toews at center.
Saad's approach, however, will be pretty simplistic.
"If you think too much out there, you're going to get burnt," Saad said. "Just have fun out there. You're playing with great players and you can play your game."
Saad didn't score a goal or tally an assist in his two previous NHL games, but was the biggest story among prospects coming out of training camp. Blackhawks coach Joel Quenneville was impressed and hasn't forgotten.
"He's going to play," Quenneville said. "The way he's played when you look at training camp and the way he played at the beginning of the season and what's he capable of, I thought he matured pretty well over the course of the season [in Saginaw]. He had a strong year and had an excellent [OHL] playoffs, as well. He's fresh and excited. We'll get to see how he does and go off of that."
Quenneville, who didn't have his team skate forward lines Thursday morning, didn't rule out the possibility of Saad getting some time among Chicago's top-six group in a critical playoff game -- with the Hawks trailing 2-1 in the series.
"We'll see how the game is, how he's handling it," Quenneville said. "There's a chance he could get some exposure to the top guys."
If so, Saad's more experienced Hawks teammates said they're not concerned about it being too much to handle.
"[Saad] looks really good," Chicago center Dave Bolland said. "He's strong. He's put on some more speed and maybe some more weight, but he's a big kid and he can hold [his own] out there. I think we'll probably see a lot of him. You see how he plays and what he did in training camp … he's a big kid, uses his body well and he's going to do great."
Patrick Sharp agreed and said the 6-foot-1, 202-pound Saad already passes the eyeball test.
"He looks like an NHL player," Sharp said. "It's nice to have him back with us. I think the less you know, the better at that age. I know I'd be excited to put the jersey on and be out there in a playoff atmosphere, so the less you think about the better. We're not worried about him at all. He'll be just fine."