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Experience helps Brandon Saad fight off mounting frustration

RALEIGH, N.C. — The first couple of weeks of Brandon Saad’s NHL career were exhilarating.

A surprise to make the roster out of a four-day, post-lockout training camp in 2013, Saad found himself thrust into a top-line role as an injury replacement in the second game, suddenly playing a major role — and playing it well — on a team that was just starting a 21-0-3 run to open the season. 

But there was one problem: Saad couldn’t score. Oh, he was around the net all the time, playing alongside Jonathan Toews and Marian Hossa. But the puck wouldn’t go in. He was stopped on breakaways, denied on the doorstep, hitting posts and chipping shots just wide. At just 20 years old, it was tough to fend off the mounting frustration.

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Brandon Saad had six goals in his first six games, but hasn't scored since. (AP Photo)

“You just want to get your first one out of the way,” Saad recalled. “Sometimes you’re all over the net, and the pucks just aren’t bouncing your way.”

Saad is going through a similar drought now. After scoring six goals in his first six games (four of them game-winners), he hasn’t found the back of the net in 10 straight games. But at 25, with a breadth of experience that most players at 35 don’t have, Saad is better-equipped to handle it.

He has won two Stanley Cups and gone to another conference final. Then he suffered through a miserable first season in Columbus, only to enjoy the defiant fun of a remarkable turnaround last season.

Saad went 17 games without a goal during the 2013 playoffs but still won a Stanley Cup. He went 18 games without a goal late in the 2014 season, spilling into the playoffs, but still made his impact with his stellar two-way game. And he went 11 games without a goal in 2015-16 but still finished with a career-high 31 goals.

So one little slump isn’t going to faze him at this point.

“You have that experience that you can fall back on and know that it’s something you’ve been through before,” Saad said. “You know how to get out of it and not to panic. But still, when you’re losing games, you want to score even more.”

Saad — like so many other Hawks during this teamwide scoring slump — feels he’s agonizingly close to breaking through. He had his best game in weeks Thursday night in Philadelphia, with a career-high eight shots on goal. And he’ll be reunited with Toews and Richard Panik on the top line Saturday at Carolina, a line that coach Joel Quenneville said gives the ever-changing Hawks lineup some much-needed “predictability.”

“We were pretty dominant early on, and then we had some lulls,” Saad said. “We had some chemistry going there early on, and we’re looking to get that back.”

The whole team has been looking for the chemistry that showed in two emphatic wins over the Penguins and Blue Jackets to open the season. But like Saad, everyone seems snakebitten. And given the Hawks’ lofty stature in recent years, mediocrity feels apocalyptic.

But once again, Saad has the experience to know better. His 2015-16 Blue Jackets finished 27th in the league.

“Going through all that, you know you’re going to face adversity throughout the year,” Saad said. “That [2015-16] season is something you can fall back on, knowing how bad it can get, but knowing it’s a long season and that we can pull ourselves out of this.”

And looking around this Hawks room — and looking in the mirror — Saad doesn’t get the same vibe he got in that Blue Jackets room. He sees frustration, yes, but he also sees optimism.

“The guys are still positive,” he said. “We have a lot of talent and depth in this room. There’s no reason to hang our heads or anything like that. We’ve just got to stick with it and do what we’re supposed to do on a consistent basis, and we’ll be fine.”

Follow me on Twitter @MarkLazerus.

Email: mlazerus@suntimes.com