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Scoring support: Five role players who have stepped up in the NHL playoffs

They might not be skating big minutes, but these five players have made the most of every shift through the early part of the 2018 NHL post-season.

Given the Nashville roster includes the likes of Filip Forsberg, Viktor Arvidsson, Ryan Johansen and Kyle Turris, Kevin Fiala might not have been the first name that jumped out when searching for a potential Predators hero. But it was Fiala who delivered when Nashville needed it most in Sunday’s thrilling double-overtime contest against the Winnipeg Jets. 

Realistically, though, Fiala shouldn’t have been considered a long shot to score the winner. While he doesn’t get the spotlight among his Predators teammates, the 21-year-old winger made some serious noise in his first full NHL campaign despite averaging what amounts to nothing more than bottom-six minutes. He skated little more than 15 minutes per game, yet that didn’t get in the way of Fiala scoring an impressive 23 goals and 48 points. Suffice to say, Fiala hasn’t needed much in the way of ice time to make an impact in these playoffs, as the overtime goal was his third tally and fourth points of the post-season despite his modest 15:09 average ice time.

But Fiala isn’t the only skater making magic despite a lack of ice time. Here are five others who have contributed more than their share through the early part of the post-season:

Marcus Sorensen, San Jose Sharks

The plan entering the campaign was never really for Sorensen to be a big part of the Sharks’ lineup. After all, San Jose didn’t quite plan for the play of Joel Ward and Jannik Hansen to slip enough that the better option was a 26-year-old winger who had 19 games of NHL experience prior to this season. But here we are, with Sorensen seemingly a fixture of the Sharks’ bottom-six this post-season despite being in and out of the lineup over the back half of the season.

Turns out that plugging Sorensen into the lineup for the post-season was the right call, too. Sure, he managed just five goals and seven points in 32 regular season contests, but he has made the most of every second of ice time he’s managed to earn in the playoffs. During the Sharks’ first-round series against the Ducks, Sorensen was a nightmare for Anaheim’s defense and he scored in each of the final three games even though he saw a combined 29 minutes of ice time. He hasn’t yet scored against the Golden Knights, but it might not be smart to bet against him making some noise before the series is over.

Sean Kuraly, Boston Bruins

During the 2016-17 regular season, Sean Kuraly saw eight games of NHL action. And “saw” is the right way to put it because he didn’t touch the ice all that often. His average ice time was little more than nine minutes. With that in mind, he was about as unsung a hero as the Bruins could have found in Game 5 of the first round last season, during which he scored two goals, including the tying tally and overtime winner.

Fast forward to this post-season, and 'Playoff Kuraly' has shown up again. After registering a grand total of six goals and 14 points in 75 games during the regular season, Kuraly has contributed at half a point per game through the first eight games of the playoffs, including an insurance marker in the Bruins' first-round series against the Toronto Maple Leafs.

Brandon Tanev, Winnipeg Jets

Tanev is a role player through and through. His game is predicated upon speed, but that doesn’t mean he’s going to shy away from getting physical, even if he does boast a somewhat slight 6-foot, 180-pound frame. He’s a penalty killer and a shot blocker and anything he does put up on the scoreboard is seen as an added bonus. That being said, Tanev has been giving opposing defenders and goaltenders fits throughout the early part of the post-season.

Not only has he been able to work his way into prime scoring areas throughout the first two rounds, but Tanev has managed to fire 14 pucks on goal — fifth among all Jets forwards — and he has been rewarded for his effort with three goals. He’s found himself on quite the run of late, too. After scoring in Game 5 against the Minnesota Wild, Tanev has found twine in each of the first two games against the Nashville Predators. Both were big goals, too. His first opened the scoring in Game 1, his second was a big third period goal for Winnipeg in Game 2.

Austin Watson, Nashville Predators

When Watson really started to come alive offensively for the Predators in the latter half of their 2017 playoff run, the hope was he could keep that rolling into the 2017-18 campaign. And while he did bang home a career-best 14 goals, Watson only registered 19 points in 76 games during the regular season. The post-season can bring out the best in some players, though, and Watson seems to be just the type to hit his stride during the second season. Just take a look at his first-round performance against the Colorado Avalanche.

In the six-game series, one that was much tighter than expected with the Avs limiting the production from the Predators’ top line and defense, Watson was an absolute difference-maker. He registered at least one point in every game, including four goals and seven points for the series. He hasn’t found the scoresheet yet in the second round — in fairness, he played only four minutes in Game 1 due to injury — but Watson has made his presence felt with seven hits in two games.

Jake DeBrusk, Boston Bruins

By any measure, DeBrusk had an excellent rookie campaign, but chances are he’s not going to be showing up in the top five when it comes to Calder Trophy voting when the ballots are unveiled after the NHL Awards. That’s the bad news. The good news is that DeBrusk won’t exactly care about missing out on potential Calder glory if he’s spending the summer celebrating a Stanley Cup victory. And with the way he’s playing, DeBrusk is giving Boston that little bit of an extra edge they might need to get there.

While the Bruins have undoubtedly been led by the top line of Patrice Bergeron, David Pastrnak and Brad Marchand, DeBrusk has put up big numbers throughout his playoff debut, scoring six goals and eight points in eight games despite averaging less than 15 minutes per outing. He’s shown up in the big moments, too, scoring two goals in a Game 7 victory over the Maple Leafs before delivering a game-sealing empty-netter against the Tampa Bay Lightning to kick off Round 2.

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