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Blackhawks’ Brandon Saad breaking through the rookie wall

Updated: May 9, 2013 7:53PM



This is uncharted territory for Brandon Saad. His body’s never been taxed like this, his mind has never been tested like this.

While Jonathan Toews was leading a few casual workouts a week during the NHL lockout, Saad was riding buses across the Midwest and hopping flights to places like San Antonio and Abbotsford, British Columbia, with the Rockford IceHogs. While other players worked out on their own at their own pace, Saad was playing three-game weekends in the physical AHL.

Game 5 of the Western Conference quarterfinals on Thursday night was the 82nd hockey game of the season for Saad. And while he insists he hasn’t hit the so-called rookie “wall,” no matter what his zero points and minus-2 rating through four games suggests, he certainly welcomed the prospect of four days off if the Blackhawks could put an early end to the Minnesota Wild’s season on Thursday.

“To get that rest right now, it’s really important because down the stretch it’s going to be a battle,” Saad said before the game. “This is only the first round, and we want to take care of this job first and have a little rest before the big battle comes.”

Saad has had long seasons before. He made two playoff runs in the Ontario Hockey League each of the past two seasons, and tacked on a couple of playoff games with the Hawks last season. He’s also played in the World Juniors following the 2010 season.

But the 71 games he played in 2010-11 was his longest season before this one. Last year, he played just 60 games.

“It’s a little different, because in juniors it’s a lot of three games in one weekend, or more condensed,” Saad said. “But this year has been kind of like that, too, [with the compressed schedule]. It’s harder in the aspect that the league’s harder, obviously, but it’s like anything else — you’ve just got to prepare for it.”

To better prepare his team for it, Hawks coach Joel Quenneville was careful to dole out plenty of off days, cutting back on practices as the Hawks stormed through 48 regular-season games in 99 days. Patrick Kane, who played 20 games in Switzerland during the lockout, said he felt “fresh” and has all season, aside from a brief stint of double-shifting when Marian Hossa was injured mid-season.

He said that any complaint of tired legs and mental fatigue from any players who played elsewhere during the lockout “is just an excuse.” Patrick Sharp, who’s played only 32 games this year as he’s dealt with a shoulder injury, agreed.

“Everyone’s ready to play in the playoffs, whether you’re tired, injured, rested, healthy,” he said. “So I don’t think it really matters.”

Easy for the veterans to say. For the guys who played in Rockford at the start of the season, particularly the 20-year-old Saad and 21-year-old Andrew Shaw — both of whom play a high-energy style of hockey — this is a new experience.

But Shaw — who played in his 81st game of the season, five off his OHL high, Thursday night — said the minor-league experience that gave so many players a head-start at the beginning of the season can still have a positive impact, not a detrimental one, at this late stage.

“It helped us prepare for this year, and got us in shape,” Shaw said. “The minors is a grind and so are the playoffs. It’s going to be a battle from here on out, mentally and physically, and I think we’re prepared for it. We’re professional athletes. We do this day in and day out. We love to play and I think we’re just going to come out and compete as much as we can, and we’ll be great.”



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