When you're an in-season call-up you know your stay is always up in the air. Maybe you were called up because someone else is hurt and once that player returns to the lineup, you'll probably return to the minors. Or you were called up to give the team a boost, offensively or defensively, and if you don't do it you'll be reassigned.
Tanner Kero is familiar with the scenarios and the uncertainties. When he was recalled for an injured Artem Anisimov just before Christmas, Kero approached it the same way he did when he joined the Blackhawks last season. That was a brief stay. This has become a long-term one.
Kero played in his 37th game on Sunday, his bank-shot pass to Marcus Kruger leading to the latter's empty-net goal in the Blackhawks' 6-3 victory over the Colorado Avalanche. Kero has helped fill the bottom-six need at center, has been solid in faceoffs (he's just under 46 percent for the season) and has been part of the team's dependable youth movement this season. Kero said he's appreciated the long-term opportunity but he approaches every game as another audition.
"You're never too sure how long a call-up is going to be, for whatever the reason you're being called up is, but you want to take advantage of that opportunity and work hard every day and try to earn that spot," Kero said. "If you get that consistent ice time you just try to get better, not just be satisfied with that. You try to earn as much as you can, earn their trust and more opportunities."
Coach Joel Quenneville credits Kero with bringing a consistent game.
"He's reliable in a lot of ways," he said. "He puts himself in the right spot, down low in his own end, underneath coverage, and seems to be useful in killing penalties as well. There's more offense in his game that hopefully can come around and add to his reliability defensively. We feel he's done a good job of being a guy in the middle you can use and we like what he's brought to our team in a position where, [earlier in] the year, I don't know if he was forecast to be a regular like that. But he's become more and more reliable, or used more."
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Kero doesn't take anything for granted, even though he's had a stead role this late in the regular season. That pressure is part of what fuels him.
"That pushes you a little extra every day," he said. "You want to make sure you're doing all the little things right. You never know when the opportunity will be taken away for whatever reason. You want to take advantage of it and make the most of it."
Kero's learned a lot in his time with the Blackhawks. He's more confident in his role, more confident with the puck and knowing when to demand it, hold it or give it up. He's also getting great experience in dealing with the more intense regular-season stretch run, something he'll need if he's part of the postseason (and as of now it looks like he will be).
"You want to play against those good teams, to play on the road and in different atmospheres and get used to it, get the confidence to play your game in those environments," Kero said. "Heading into the playoffs that's a huge thing, especially playing against teams like Minnesota who are right in the race with you. You want to trust yourself and trust you can play in that situation."
Kero has earned trust this season. What looked like a short-term stay when he first arrived has become a lengthy one. But he'll keep playing like he has to prove himself every game.