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After 5 straight early springs, playoff berth means a lot to Ladd

Andrew Ladd has six goals in 13 games with the Blackhawks. (Getty Images)

VANCOUVER, British Columbia — As a 21-year-old rookie with the Carolina Hurricanes, Andrew Ladd walked into the NHL and won the Stanley Cup. Three years later, he reached the Western Conference final with the Blackhawks. The following year, he was a champion again.

So much for that old hockey axiom that the Stanley Cup is the toughest trophy to win in sports.

“I took it for granted, for sure,” Ladd said. “I’m sure there are guys in [the Hawks] dressing room that take it for granted now, too. A lot of guys know nothing but being in the playoffs. But I’m sure if you ask Brandon Saad after the season he’s going through, you learn quickly how tough it really is.”

Saad won 10 playoff series and two championships in his first three seasons. Now he’s in Columbus, traded away over the summer for salary-cap reasons, about as far away as possible from a third Stanley Cup.

Ladd knows the feeling. After experiencing such wild success in his first handful of NHL seasons, Ladd — a cap casualty in the summer of 2010 — went four long seasons without sniffing the playoffs, before going four-and-out last year with the Winnipeg Jets. The last playoff game he won? Game 6 against Philadelphia in 2010.

So perhaps nobody in the Hawks room appreciated the magnitude of Sunday’s playoff clincher — a foregone conclusion in Chicago, but a significant achievement in many other NHL cities — more than Ladd.

“Coming back here, that was the most exciting thing to think about — having the opportunity to play in those types of games again, and ultimately to have a chance to win a Stanley Cup,” Ladd said. “I guess you gain a certain appreciation for how hard it is just to get in. And then you gain an appreciation for every opportunity that you have once you are in, and just how much fun it is to play in those games.”

Ladd has been everything the Hawks hoped he would be since they gave up a first-round pick and Marko Dano to pry him loose from Winnipeg, where he was the team captain. He has six goals and three assists in 13 games, with three goals in the last two — a pair of desperately needed victories that have stabilized a staggered team.

Ladd doesn’t have the speed that Saad — whose spot in the lineup he now fills — had, but his heady two-way game and net-crashing ability has meshed well with Jonathan Toews and Marian Hossa on the top line. Ladd, who has been run ragged the last few weeks while getting his family settled in Chicago, said being on the road this week has allowed him to get to know all the new faces on the team, and reconnect with his old teammates. It’s still a little weird to be wearing a Hawks sweater again, but it’s starting to feel more normal. And that’s helping him find his comfort level on the ice, too.

“I love the way he played the last couple of games,” Hawks coach Joel Quenneville said. “He brings that presence, he’s got some pace to his game, he has some energy. And he’s been reward with some huge goals for us.”

Ladd’s wife is due to give birth to the couple’s third child on May 23. For the past five years, Ladd’s had all the free time in the world in late May, so it didn’t seem like much of a problem when they found out. But back in Chicago, and back on a contender after a lengthy hiatus from relevance, Ladd’s hoping to be awfully busy when the baby arrives.

“That’s the plan, yeah,” he said with a smile.

Ladd is making $4.5 million in the final year of his contract, and like his new house in Chicago, he’s merely a rental. His uncertain future hung over him like a dark cloud for much of a lost season in Winnipeg. But the immediacy of the Hawks’ pending playoff run, and the perspective he now has on how rare such an opportunity is, has made it easy to keep the blinders on.

“The trade deadline’s a tough time,” he said. “But coming here, I know that the sole focus is to help this team win and help them get another Stanley Cup. That’s all I’m thinking about.”

NOTE: The Chicago chapter of the Professional Hockey Writers Association nominated Michal Rozsival for the Masterton Trophy, presented to the player who best exemplifies perseverance and dedication to the sport. Rozsival suffered a gruesome ankle injury in the second round last spring, and rather than retire as a Stanley Cup champion at age 37, he went through a grueling rehab to become an everyday player again by mid-November.

Email: mlazerus@suntimes.com

Twitter: @marklazerus