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Blackhawks’ ‘kids’ must keep nerves in check


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Updated: June 10, 2013 11:01PM

At 21, Blackhawks forward Andrew Shaw still is just a fun-loving kid off the ice. Earlier in the playoffs, when a layman interrupted a game of one-touch soccer with teammates in the bowels of the United Center — a pre-game warmup ritual in hockey — he grabbed the ball, took two dribbles, made a spin move on the intruder and dunked the ball over a light fixture on the wall. Two points for the kid.

But on the ice, Shaw is all business. Whether he’s instigating, retaliating, barking at an opponent or fighting for position in front of the net, he’s going all-out every step of the way. So it’s no surprise that even at his age, he’s aware of the moment. He’s been through the playoffs. But this is the Stanley Cup Final, with a capital ‘‘F’’ for a reason. Shaw can feel the difference already.

‘‘It’s the Cup,’’ he said simply. ‘‘We’ve battled all year. This is what we’ve dreamed of as a kid. We’ve got to go out there and seize the moment. Right now, I’m not too nervous. But come game time, I’m going to be a little nervous.’’

The trick for players like Shaw, 20-year-old Brandon Saad and 22-year Nick Leddy is to find a way to treat Wednesday night’s Stanley Cup Final opener against the Boston Bruins at the United Center like it’s just another game when they know deep down it is not. There’s got to be a way to channel the nervous energy into positive energy, because — against a formidable opponent that was on this stage just two years ago — the alternative likely will not be pretty.

‘‘We have a lot of character in this room,’’ said Shaw, who has four goals and three assists and an even plus-minus rating in 17 playoff games. ‘‘We’re going to overcome that [nervousness]. And we’re going to compete and battle for each other.’’

Shaw plays an energy-and-effort game that should eliminate the jitters almost as soon as he hits the ice. His challenge will be to avoid overdoing it. He leads the Hawks with 26 minutes in penalties through the first three rounds.

‘‘Just skate and hit and try to create momentum for everyone,’’ he said. ‘‘Think of it as another game. You can’t be too nervous, because when you’re nervous you’re going to make mistakes.’’

It’s a credit to Saad’s even-keeled demeanor that he’s reached this point with his head on straight. A Calder Trophy finalist, the 20-year-old has not scored in 17 playoff games and was dropped from the vaunted first line to the third line early in the playoffs. The slow start, the demotion and the constant questions about both have yet to rattle him in the least.

‘‘It’s been unbelievable, the whole year in general,’’ Saad said. ‘‘It’s kind of been a fairy tale for how well it’s gone. We’re looking to close a chapter here.’’

A multi-faceted forward, Saad has kept his head up and made an impact on the third line with a Marian Hossa-like work ethic — using grit, hustle, speed and hockey instincts to improve every step of the way and keeping himself ready to be in position for the opportunity that could turn it around. He acknowledged the frustration of not scoring — he has four assists and is a minus-4 in the postseason. But he said he feels fresh and appears as confident as ever that he’s about to break out of it.

‘‘You always want to produce, especially being an offensive forward, that’s something you want to do,’’ Saad said. ‘‘But there’s still time, so we’re looking forward to this round.’’

Of the Blackhawks youngsters, Leddy, who has the most experience with 216 NHL games, might be the most at risk of being consumed by the moment. A puck-moving defenseman, he has no goals, two assists and is team-low minus-7 for the playoffs.

‘‘I am playing in [the Final] for the first time, so I try and take it as much like any other game as you can,’’ said Leddy, who has played in 30 playoff games in three seasons. ‘‘Obviously it’s a huge spotlight on a huge stage. ... Once you get out there, I guess all the nerves and stuff will go away and your adrenaline will kick in and the game will start.’’

To Saad, the Final is just another step along the way — just a little bigger than the previous steps. Ultimately, it’s still just hockey. The trick is getting to that point once the puck drops.

‘‘We talked a little bit about embracing it and being excited,’’ Saad said, referring the first-time Final participants. ‘‘It’s not every year [you make it to the Final]. Some guys never make it to the Cup finals in their career, so just be excited about it, and looking forward to the challenge.’’

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