CHICAGO – A year ago, Brandon Saad was just a footnote when he made his post-season debut for Chicago against the Phoenix Coyotes. He skated for just over 10 minutes in two games and picked up his first career NHL point on an assist, but the Blackhawks were eliminated in the first round.
This season, the 20-year-old Pittsburgh native is skating on the same line as Jonathan Toews and Marian Hossa. He is one of several rookies playing an important role for contending teams in the playoffs.
“It’s definitely more intense,” Saad said. “Guys working harder, faster pace.”
Saad played 21 minutes and had two shots in the Blackhawks’ 2-1 overtime win over Minnesota in Game 1 of their best-of-seven series on Tuesday. It was the first career playoff game for Wild rookies Charlie Coyle, Jason Zucker and Jonas Brodin, who will be back on the ice when the series resumes Friday night at the United Center.
“It’s a little bit different,” Brodin said. “It’s a step higher with everything. More intensity and stuff. So it’s fun to play in. We were waiting for this, all the year. It’s a really fun time right now.”
The playoffs are full of important rookies this year.
Forwards Brendan Gallagher (15 goals, 13 assists) and Alex Galchenyuk (nine goals, 18 assists) helped Montreal grab the Northeast Division title and No. 2 seed in the Eastern Conference. Kings defenceman Jake Muzzin, who took on a more prominent role when the defending champions were hit with a slew of injuries, had 16 points in the regular season, then picked up an assist in Los Angeles’ 2-1 overtime loss at St. Louis in Game 1 of their series.
Pittsburgh forward Beau Bennett scored a power-play goal just 25 seconds into his first playoff shift on Wednesday night, converting a nifty wrist shot to give the Penguins a 1-0 lead over the New York Islanders. The 21-year-old rookie got the start on the fourth line over veteran Tyler Kennedy.
“The skill he adds to our lineup in that role starting with today, which was the fourth-line role, was not only evident in a great goal on the back end of that power play, but 5 on 5 as well in some of the shifts he had in the offensive zone,” Penguins coach Dan Bylsma said. “That’s something he added, especially the last stint he got called back up, he’s proven he can do that and certainly did that again.”
Bennett became the first rookie to score the first goal for the Penguins in the playoffs since Jordan Staal against Ottawa in Game 1 of the Eastern Conference quarterfinals on April 11, 2007. He also joined an impressive list of Penguins who scored in their post-season debut, including Sidney Crosby.
“We have a lot of depth on this team so we’ve all got to be ready when we’re called upon,” Bennett said. “Luckily I got the call. I tried to take full advantage of it.”
Saad made his NHL debut on Oct. 7, 2011, at Dallas, but spent most of the season with Saginaw in the Ontario Hockey League. He came into his own this year, when he had 10 goals and 17 assists in 46 games. He also led all NHL rookies with a plus-17 rating.
Playing with veteran stars Toews and Hossa has helped with the development of the second-round selection from the 2011 entry draft.
“It’s helped out tremendously,” Saad said. “I mean being able to play on this team with how good we’ve been playing and especially with those guys on the same line, it’s been huge for my confidence and for my learning ability. I couldn’t really ask for anything more.”
Coyle, who was acquired in the 2011 trade that sent All-Star defenceman Brent Burns to San Jose, plays on Minnesota’s first line with Zach Parise and Mikko Koivu. The 6-foot-2 right wing had eight goals and six assists in 37 games this season.
“You have many dreams growing up, and playing for the Cup is my biggest one,” said Coyle, a first-round pick by San Jose in the 2010 draft. “So it’s pretty special to be here and be with this group of guys. It’s a good group of guys, so it’s exciting.”
Brodin and fellow defenceman Ryan Suter stepped up after goalie Niklas Backstrom was scratched from Game 1 with a leg injury. Brodin played 34 minutes in his first playoff game and Suter was on the ice for 41 minutes, providing valuable support for backup goalie Josh Harding.
Zucker, who played six games for Minnesota last season, had a shot go off the crossbar in overtime in the playoff opener.
“I thought that all our young kids played a very good game,” Minnesota coach Mike Yeo said. “They were able to play their game and go out and execute.”
AP Sports Writers Will Graves in Pittsburgh and Dave Campbell in St. Paul, Minn., contributed to this report.
Jay Cohen can be reached at http://www.twitter.com/jcohenap