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Brandon Saad finds his footing on Blackhawks’ top line

CHICAGO IL - JUNE 22: BrandSaad #20 Chicago Blackhawks skates across ice Game Five Stanley Cup Final against BostBruins United

CHICAGO, IL - JUNE 22: Brandon Saad #20 of the Chicago Blackhawks skates across the ice in Game Five of the Stanley Cup Final against the Boston Bruins at the United Center on June 22, 2013 in Chicago, Illinois. (Photo by Bill Smith/NHLI via Getty Images)

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As mature as he seemed, as well as he played and as much as he belonged, there were moments last season in which Brandon Saad found himself pausing to marvel at the fact that he was on a line with Jonathan Toews and Marian Hossa — while he was on the ice with them.

When you’re a 20-year-old rookie, it’s hard to fathom.

“Anytime you come in as a young guy around superstars in the league, you kind of look up to them and find yourself watching them ­instead of playing,” Saad said.

Not anymore. Now Saad knows he belongs. And since he was reunited with Toews on the top line over the last five games, the two have become the Blackhawks’ new dynamic duo. From the moment Saad moved up in the wake of Hossa’s first-period injury at Soldier Field on March 1, the two have shown an easy and undeniable chemistry that has entrenched Saad as the top-line left wing after spending most of the season bouncing around both sides of the second and third lines.

Toews scored twice at Soldier Field, with Saad on the ice for both. In fact, Toews has six goals in their four-plus games together, with Saad on the ice for four of them and recording the primary assist on two. And Saad added a goal of his own — his 19th — with Toews on the ice in Wednesday night’s loss to Colorado.

Coach Joel Quenneville likes the pairing so much that he said that when Hossa gets back — likely within the next week — Saad will remain on the top line, and Hossa will replace Andrew Shaw on the right wing. Patrick Sharp, who’s been productive on Toews’ left wing this season, will stay on the second line with Michal Handzus and Patrick Kane — the same top two lines the Hawks had for most of last season.

“[Saad is] a big-bodied guy, kind of like Jonny — strong on the puck,” Quenneville said. “They have a lot of similar traits, but their strength and controlling and containing and sustaining pucks is as good as there is in the game.”

In fact, Saad went so far as to say he modeled his two-way game and work ethic after Toews, watching the Hawks captain while “growing up.” Toews, who’s all of 25, probably wouldn’t like to hear that last part. But he definitely sees himself in his young linemate.

“We’re similar players,” Toews said. “Needless to say, he’s got a lot of skill and a lot of speed. The more we can have the puck, the more plays we’re going to make, and the more goals we’re going to score. I think you’ve seen that.”

Saad has managed to avoid a sophomore slump after being a Calder Trophy finalist last season. He has 19 goals and 25 assists, and his plus-29 rating is third in the NHL despite his inconsistent spot in the lineup. And now that he’s ­getting top-line minutes, he has four points in five games, firing 21 shots on goal.

“He’s only going to get better playing with a guy like Toews, with his speed, and just maturing and getting all those reps and all that ice time,” goaltender Corey Crawford said. “Just learning every shift is going to make that guy a really good hockey player and really dangerous offensively.”

And perhaps someday soon, another rookie will come up and be thrust on to a line with Saad, only to find himself watching in awe.

“I feel much better,” Saad said of his confidence level. “Playing last year with [Toews] and Hoss, it’s kind of just trying to keep up, work hard and do what I can. This year, it’s making plays and contributing.”

Email: mlazerus@suntimes.com

Twitter: @marklazerus



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