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Playoff Tested

Just about every young athlete grows up with hopes and dreams of playing Major league Baseball, the NFL, NBA or NHL. Things were no different for Gibsonia native Brandon Saad, who worked his way from Pine-Richland High School to become the 43rd overall pick in the 2011 NHL Draft, selected in the second round by the Chicago Blackhawks.

Very few players make their NHL debut in the same year they were drafted. But not only did Saad land a spot in the starting lineup for two regular season games for Chicago at the beginning of the 2011-12 season, he was called up to play against the Phoenix Coyotes in the first round of the Stanley Cup playoffs.

“I’ve always wanted to play in the NHL,” Brandon said.  “I’m fortunate enough to have had success.”

Saad got his start with the Pittsburgh Hornets, a youth hockey organization that competes at the Tier 1 and AAA level. 

Jeff Potter, Director of Hockey Operations for the Hornets and one of Brandon’s former coaches, calls his ex-pupil a natural athlete. 

“He’s a natural goal scorer,” Potter said. “He’s got the instinct for it.”

That natural talent led to him playing up a couple age divisions early in his youth career. 

“I was 14-15 playing up with the 18-19 year-olds,” Saad said about his early years with the Hornets. Potter said that despite a slightly rough start at a young age, it wasn’t long before he looked like a natural on the ice. 

“In his first year, he was not as great at 12-years-old, but got better at 13 and 14,” Potter said. “He developed more and more as he got older.”

As the 2012 entry draft quickly approaches, Saad took some time to look back on what has been a whirlwind year in hockey for the 19-year old.

“I trained hard knowing I was going into rookie camp in Chicago. I played in six exhibition games and then two in the regular season,” Saad said. 

One of those pre-season games happened to be right here in Pittsburgh against the Penguins. 

“It was awesome, a lot of fun,” he said of the experience. “It was nice to be able to come home and play in front of family and friends.”

In those six preseason games Saad tallied 3 points, one goal and two assists. He posted 3 shots on goal in about 28 minutes of ice time during two regular season games with Chicago before being sent to the Saginaw Spirit of the Ontario Hockey League.

In Saginaw, Saad continued to improve his game and posted very impressive numbers by the end of the season. The rookie left wing recorded 34 goals and 76 points with the Spirit, the second highest on the team. In the postseason, he added eight goals and nine assists. He finished the year with a team-high +35 rating and averaged 1.73 points per game.    

In December, Saad was selected to compete for Team USA at the World Junior Championships and scored the lone goal in USA’s 4-1 loss to Finland. Although the United State team didn’t return home with a medal, the international experience figures to serve as an invaluable tool as Saad progresses in his young career.

AP Photo“The national team really helped him prepare for (the NHL).” Potter said. “He’s more focused than ever now.”

In April, Saad finally got the call that every prospect works for: he would not just get to play in the NHL, but in the NHL playoffs. 

“I was very excited, but definitely nervous to play,” he said.

Saad was set to replace right-winger Marion Hossa, the ex-Penguin who was injured in Game 3 after taking a hit to the head from the Coyote’s Rafi Torres. To make an already incredible experience even more surreal, Saad was expected to play on a top line with all-stars Jonathan Toews and Patrick Kane.

Before taking the ice for his first NHL postseason contest, Saad looked back to the beginning of the season for preparation. 

“The intensity is definitely greater (in the postseason),” he said. “Every game means something.” 

In two playoff games, Saad tallied two assists and a +2 rating.

Chicago fell to Phoenix four games to two in the first round of the Western Conference playoffs. Despite their early exit, the experience figures to be only the beginning for Saad, who has a promising future ahead of him. The fact that Saad got the call in the playoffs ahead of other, more experienced prospects, speaks volumes for highly the Blackhawks think of him.

Every young kid hopes to be able to say it one day, and Brandon Saad has found himself among the few that can: one athlete that is truly “living the dream.”

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