The Chicago Blackhawks have been getting great production out of their star players like Patrick Kane and Jonathan Toews during the Stanley Cup playoffs, but one player that has been hard to figure out has been winger Brandon Saad.
He started out well in the playoffs with four points in the first three games against the St. Louis Blues, but then he was held off the score sheet in the final three games of that series. Saad then scored two goals and tacked on an assist in the team’s first two games against the Minnesota Wild, but went pointless in the final four games as the Blackhawks advanced to the Western Conference Final.
On Sunday afternoon, Saad once again started out strong in a series, scoring a goal and adding an assist as the Blackhawks knocked off the Los Angeles Kings by a 3-1 score in Game 1. He only had one shot on goal in the game, but it was an important one as he deflected a point shot by Nick Leddy past Jonathan Quick to give the Blackhawks a first period lead.
The question then is this: Can Saad continue to improve on his offensive production, or will the Kings pull the same trick as the Wild and Blues in adjusting well to his tactics and limiting him?
Of course, some of the blame for Saad’s struggles can be given to Joel Quenneville, who doesn’t keep players on consistent lines very often, but the fact of the matter is that Saad does have to adjust better when teams are feeling out ways to stop him. No team, especially a defensively gifted one like the Kings, is going to allow a player to run roughshod over them for several games in a row without making a concerted effort to stop them, and Saad is going to have to figure out different ways to get open and create scoring opportunities for himself and his teammates.
In Sunday’s game, Saad did show some signs that he’s willing to try different types of moves and zone entries to try to alleviate some of that defensive pressure. A great example came on his assist in the second period. As he crossed the blue line, Saad was out-numbered by Kings’ defenders, and instead of continuing on into the zone and skating behind the net, the winger turned back toward the point to open up some space. That also allowed Duncan Keith to get into the zone, and when Saad found the defenseman with a cross-ice pass, Keith didn’t miss as he blasted a shot past Quick to give the Blackhawks the lead.
That seemingly innocuous move was actually one that Patrick Kane frequently uses. With his speed, teams usually are quick to collapse on him along the boards on zone entries, and Kane will often cut back and skate across the zone a bit to buy more time than he would ordinarily have. Saad pulled off that move to perfection on that play, and it gave the Blackhawks a lead that they would never relinquish.
Saad also had another shining moment in the third period of the game when he showed off his defensive chops. When Kings forward Tyler Toffoli tried to gain entry into the zone, he tried to pull off a move at the blue line. Saad didn’t bite on the fake, and instead poke-checked the puck away and created a chance for the Blackhawks in their transition game.
Ever since he came into the league, Saad has been working hard on his back-checking game, and he has a great player to learn from in Marian Hossa. The veteran forward may not get the credit from national writers who vote on the Selke Award, but he is one of the best defensive players in the game, and he has made stick lifts and poke checks an art form. Saad is definitely learning some of Hossa’s best tricks, and he showed off his knowledge on that play.
If Saad can continue to play sound defense like that, then his scoring droughts become much easier to take. That being said, Saad did show some good versatility and intelligence in Game 1, and that could be a sign of things to come as he looks to level out his production as the team goes deeper in the playoffs.