LOS ANGELES -- One of Brandon Saad's favorite days of the season was driving back to Rockford and gathering all of his possessions.
That was the day he knew he had made it.
The 20-year-old Saad hadn't been sure whether he was a temporary call-up or someone who would stick with the Chicago Blackhawks when he was first recalled from the AHL's Rockford IceHogs following the NHL's lockout. He had left all of his stuff back in Rockford in January knowing there was a possibility he would be told at any time he'd be getting on I-90 West and returning to the IceHogs.
Saad never heard that, though. He went from being a healthy scratch in the Blackhawks' season opener to being placed on the team's top line the following day due to an injury to Daniel Carcillo.
Saad's NHL career hasn't been the same since.
Saad skated with that top line for 46 of the regular-season's 48 games, recorded his first career NHL goal, went on to finish the regular season with 10 goals and 17 assists, was voted a finalist for the Calder Memorial Trophy and is now helping the Blackhawks on their playoff run. On Sunday, he notched his first multi-point playoff game with two assists in a win over the Los Angeles Kings in Game 3 of their Western Conference finals series.
Saad's rise this season allowed him to stay in Chicago, but it also meant IceHogs coach Ted Dent's loss. Dent has discovered over the years anything can happen once a player makes that jump.
“I've learned my seven years down here in the American League that there's no surprises,” Dent said recently. “Never say never is the philosophy I've taken. It sort of depends on the player and timing of things, the situation he's presented.
“You obviously saw [Saad] had a lot of talent, was playing at a high level when he left Rockford and went to Chicago. I'm not surprised. Sometimes things fall into place quicker, they just feel comfortable with players, and they get going and get into a groove. That's sort of what happened with Brandon in Chicago.”
Saad was given the luxury of playing beside Jonathan Toews and Marian Hossa this season. That made Saad's adjustment easier. It did take Saad nine games to finally record his first career goal, but he got rolling after that.
Saad had three goals and an assist in February, three goals and 12 assists in March and four goals and four assists in April.
The playoffs have presented a new challenge for Saad, and he struggled in the first round against the Minnesota Wild. He was even moved off the top line and placed with the third line alongside Andrew Shaw and Viktor Stalberg.
Saad was able to regain his form against Detroit Red Wings in the second round, and he's since continued that into the Kings' series.
“It is tough,” Shaw said of Saad. “There is a lot of pressure in the playoffs. He weathered it pretty early. He's been an offensive threat, playing great defensively, cycling the puck really well, just playing smart hockey.”
Saad thought his play has also improved because he's become more comfortable with Stalberg and Shaw.
“They made the switch there, and I think our line's getting better and better every game,” Saad said. “It's something playing together more and talking it through and getting more chemistry, we've been able to build every game.
“I think [I had] a little bit of a tough start there at the beginning, but keep doing the little things, keep sticking with it and production's going to come. Even if you don't get points, if you're on the ice and being a plus-player and getting that production, you know you're doing something right.”
Quenneville has also admired the way Saad has adjusted in the playoffs.
“I think he's handling it fine,” Quenneville said prior to Game 3 on Tuesday. “He got a little more ice time last game. I think he's fine no matter who he's playing with. He's a threat offensively. He's dangerous with the puck. We use him in both special teams units. He gets some different kind of ice time. I think he's a threat no matter who he's playing with.”