Just hours before Game 1 of the Stanley Cup Final, Brandon Saad sat at his stall inside the Blackhawks' locker room grinning wide and talked about all the excitement and anticipation he was feeling leading up to his first matchup on the big stage.
At only 20 years old, Saad found himself just four wins away from hoisting the Cup over his head; the Cup he still wouldn't even be able to legally drink out of if the Blackhawks went on to win it all. He spent the majority of his first full NHL season alongside Jonathan Toews and Marian Hossa on the top line of the league's best team and earned a Calder Trophy nomination by the time the 48-game regular-season schedule came to a close.
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He had plenty to be excited about, and he was ready to make his presence known after failing to record a postseason goal.
"Maybe I'm saving them for this series," Saad joked on Wednesday.
Turns out, he was.
Saad recorded the Blackhawks' first goal of the night and finished the game with a plus-2 rating after just over 31 minutes of ice time. The completion of a nearly five-hour Game 1 matchup helped the young rookie get his pre-series jitters out of the way and gave him a boost in confidence as he prepares for the remainder of the postseason.
On Friday, it was back to business as usual for Saad. This time he stood in front of his stall, sweat dripping from his face following an hour-long practice inside the United Center. Wednesday's smile was gone and was instead replaced with a more serious, determined look.
The progression from Wednesday's emotions to Friday's was something Saad displayed throughout the course of the regular season as well. There he was as the new guy, playing on a line with two of the top players in the league after being being drafted in the fifth round just one season prior. Any rookie would feel the excitement and pressures that come along with that, but he quickly learned to take the emotional factor out as he came into his own.
He was given an opportunity rarely seen in the NHL that helped him mature and progress on and off the ice, and he has Toews to thank for much of the growth he's experienced since the start of the year.
"He's probably been the biggest help this year," Saad said about the Blackhawks captain. "Just being around him, he doesn't even need to say anything. But to be around him and see the things he does helps out a lot, and to be able to play with him helps out even more.
"(Toews and Hossa) are both great players. We have a good team and we're solid with all four lines, so you're always going to play with good players. But those guys are world-class players and to be able to play with them ... I think we have that chemistry still."
They proved that chemistry is still there on Wednesday night when Saad recorded his first career postseason goal. It not only gave the Blackhawks momentum, it also specifically gave Saad the momentum he was searching for.
"I'm sure it's a huge relief for him, and as a line we played great, we did some good things last game," Toews said. "To have Saad back on the scoresheet like that I think gives him so much more confidence that he can go out there and make plays on every area of the rink. That's just what scoring goals does for us, so it's good for us as a line as well.
Part of being a rookie is having to learn to adapt to different situations and make adjustments accordingly with their new teammates. Saad's proved he can do that, and has done so in a lockout-shortened season. He's spent the previous playoff series making those changes once again, and it finally paid off.
"I think there's always an adjustment period whether you're coming into the league or it's your first time in the playoffs, and not too many rookies expect to be going all the way to the Stanley Cup Final the first time they enter the playoffs," Toews said. "(Saad's) done a great job all along, so it's nice to see him get that first one."