Let’s play a game of "Guess Who." The first clue is that he’s a Winnipeg Jet. The second is that he’s a forward. And the rest of his credentials are as follows: he’s tied for fourth on the team in goals, tied for seventh in points, he ranks fifth among forwards in shots and he’s been a wrecking ball on the forecheck and fearless in his defensive play.
It’s not Bryan Little. It’s not Mathieu Perreault. It’s not even Kyle Connor or Nikolaj Ehlers or Joel Armia or Adam Lowry. No, it’s Brandon Tanev, who seemingly hasn’t taken a shift off since the post-season began.
To put some figures to those above-listed clues, here’s how Tanev, who set a career-high with eight goals and 18 points in 61 games during the regular season, has performed in these playoffs. He has four goals and six points in 13 games, he’s averaging little more than 14 minutes per night — an increase of nearly two minutes over the regular season — and he has thrown his body at everything, be it an opponent or an oncoming puck. He leads all Jets forwards with 38 hits and he’s blocked 16 shots.
In fact, it seems with each passing game, Tanev has further embraced his role as some kind of Swiss Army Knife up front for Winnipeg, the kind of do-everything player beloved by coaches and teammates alike.“He’s a sparkplug for us,” said Jets center Mark Scheifele. “He’s fast, he’s on the puck, he’s on the forecheck, he’s on the backcheck, he kills penalties, he does it all for us. He’s been a guy who has been rewarded for his good play, and his play defensively has led to good offensive chances.”
That was never more evident than in the second round of the post-season, during which Tanev was a thorn in the side of the Nashville Predators beyond his usual crash-and-bang forechecking style. In each of the first three games of that series, a battle that some felt was the ultimate test of best-on-best in the Western Conference, Tanev found twine.
Oddly enough for a player who hasn’t been known for filling the goal column, his scoring streak was almost the continuation of his performance from late in the regular season. Tanev scored four goals and six points in the final six games of the season, giving him eight goals and 12 points across his past 19 games (regular season and playoffs). “I’m just getting more confident with the puck in the offensive zone and opportunities are coming,” Tanev said. “When you get those opportunities, it’s nice to bear down and capitalize on those chances. You don’t change, you don’t stray away from the game that got you here. You continue to play strong and when those opportunities do come, it’s nice to capitalize.”
The strong offensive play is a bonus, too, but it’s his play throughout all three zones that has given Winnipeg coach Paul Maurice the confidence in Tanev to move him into a third-line role, where he’s playing on the wing alongside Little and Perreault, two veterans who have nothing but praise for their 26-year-old linemate. “He’s one of the hardest-working guys on this team night in and night out,” Little said. “The way he does it, he doesn’t have off games. He comes into every game approaching it like he’s going to give 100 percent the entire game. It’s nice to see him get rewarded. He’s had some big goals for us, some hard-working goals. He’s been that way all year. He does everything he can to win.”
That’s most evident when considering he’s been arguably the most fearless shot-blocker any team has had at their disposal this post-season. The only forward who has blocked more shots is Vegas Golden Knights winger Pierre-Edouard Bellemare, but even he hasn’t shown the same disregard for the fragility of the human bone that Tanev has. Eight of Tanev’s blocks have come on the penalty kill, and he hasn’t hesitated to put his limbs on the line. “That’s a big part of my game,” Tanev said. “So being good at that is something I take pride in. It’s a job.”
More than a job, though, it has served as a source of inspiration for his teammates. Scheifele praised Tanev’s willingness to do what needs to be done for the greater good of the team, Perreault championed his linemate’s courage to do what some others may not and Little said Tanev’s gutsiness can give the entire bench a charge. “He’s one of those guys that leads by example,” Little said. “You see this guy scoring goals, he’s laying down in front of one-timers on the penalty kill and he’s probably been one of our best shot-blockers on the penalty kill this year. So, to see him do that, it motivates other guys on the bench after you see that to do it yourself.”
And as much as his teammates value Tanev’s play, there will come a time this summer when the Jets GM Kevin Cheveldayoff and Co. will have to show what they believe Tanev is worth. A restricted free agent at season’s end, one who carries arbitration rights, Tanev will likely be looking for a raise on his current one-year, $700,000 pact. For now, though, Tanev’s focus remains the same as the dressing room filled with players who respect what he’s brought all season: doing whatever it takes, in whatever way possible, to help Winnipeg fulfill their Stanley Cup dreams.
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