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Blackhawks’ Brandon Saad back at wing vs. Wings

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Jimmy Howard, Brandon Saad

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Updated: September 24, 2013 11:16PM

DETROIT — Brandon Saad has all the tools to play center in the NHL. He’s a big body, he’s strong on the puck, he’s savvy beyond his years and he’s defensively sound. At just 20 years old, and with a long-standing hole in the middle of the Blackhawks’ second line, Saad was an intriguing possibility.

Except for one thing.

“I’m a born winger,” he said.

And so coach Joel Quenneville put an end — for now, at least — to the Saad experiment, moving him back to his natural spot at left wing for Sunday’s 4-3 preseason victory over the Detroit Red Wings. And Saad, who made a game effort to handle the sudden and surprising transition to center, was clearly pleased about it.

While Saad said he felt significantly more comfortable Thursday night against Pittsburgh than he did last Tuesday against Detroit, he clearly was most comfortable at his natural position. He also won only 9 of 38 faceoffs in the two games.

“All I know is, I can play wing,” Saad said.

Saad actually found himself in his old spot on the top line, skating with Jonathan Toews and Ben Smith. But that was largely because Bryan Bickell, who made the trip, was a last-minute scratch with an equipment issue — or what Quenneville called a “lower wardrobe malfunction.” Defenseman Michael Kostka, expecting to sit out a third straight game after dealing with neck stiffness (but no concussion) from being boarded by Detroit’s Teemu Pulkkinen last Tuesday, actually played forward as a result for the first time in his career.

“I was just going to take warmup, then something came up, and they needed me,” Kostka said. “So I had to learn quickly.”

Saad can relate. Quenneville didn’t tell him he’d be playing center until camp opened and was a little surprised to find out he had never played the position before. Quenneville said it was “something we could still go to at any time,” but he said Saad will be back on the wing for the time being.

Saad likely will play on the third line, where he spent most of the playoffs.

“He’s playing on your top two [lines], then all of a sudden if he plays on your third line, that line is a very dangerous line offensively,” Quenneville said.

So the Hawks’ roster is slowly coming into focus. The top line of Bickell, Toews and Patrick Kane remains unchanged. And the third line likely will be Saad, Andrew Shaw and perhaps Jimmy Hayes, the breakout star of training camp.

With Brandon Bollig and Smith making strong cases for spots on the fourth line, that leaves only — what else? — second-line center, between Patrick Sharp and Marian Hossa, up for grabs.

Quenneville said that Michal Handzus — who has been skating on his own all camp but has yet to play a game as he recovers from major wrist and knee injuries — is the likeliest option to return to the spot he held in the playoffs. Quenneville said before camp that Handzus was going to play a smaller role this season, but at this point, he’s the Hawks’ best option.

Brandon Pirri, the AHL’s leading scorer last season, is another candidate. But he has missed the entire preseason with a lower-body injury, hurting his chances of coming out of camp with the job.

“He’s still here,” Quenneville said. “We’re going to get to see him play [Sunday at Pittsburgh], so we’ll get a better assessment there.”

NOTEs: Michal Rozsival (lower body) made his preseason debut and logged a team-high 25:43 of ice time.

Michael Kostka said Teemu Pulkkinen called to apologize the night of the hit. Pulkkinen was suspended for four preseason games.

Byron Froese scored twice, Michigan native Garret Ross scored and Joakim Nordstrom added a pretty steal-and-goal for the Hawks. Corey Crawford made 30 saves.

Quenneville singled out 6-7 defenseman Viktor Svedberg as a highlight.


Twitter: @MarkLazerus

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