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Role Players Are Also Helping Penguins Win

May 12, 1993|JIM SMITH | NEWSDAY

UNIONDALE, N.Y. — The nucleus for the Pittsburgh Penguins is so strong their role players often are overlooked. Checking left wing Jeff Daniels is one of those role players who has done a good job against the New York Islanders in the Patrick Division finals.

Daniels has been promoted from the fourth line to the second, replacing Shawn McEachern, whose confidence has evaporated. Daniels, Ron Francis and Joey Mullen have played at even strength against the Islanders' top scoring line. Daniels has limited right wing Steve Thomas to no goals and two assists, a key reason why the Penguins have a 3-2 lead and can wrap up the series with a win Wednesday night at Nassau Coliseum.

"He's a solid winger who is always in good position, has speed and is strong enough on the wall," assistant coach Barry Smith said of Daniels. "His offensive skills have improved. He's going to the net now. He's been reinforced with more ice time."

McEachern had 28 goals in the regular season, but 19 of them came in the first half. He had only seven points in the last 19 regular-season games and has only one point (an assist) in his past seven playoff games. But fellow rookie Daniels, 24, has filled the void.

Daniels grew up as a rink rat in Oshawa, Ontario, where his father, Wayne, was a trainer, scout and later general manager of the Ontario Hockey League Generals. Jeff played four years for Oshawa and four with Muskegon of the International Hockey League before playing 58 games with the Penguins this season, getting five goals and four assists. He is 3-2-5 in the playoffs.

"My dad always brought me down to the rink and let me run around," Daniels said. "I learned a lot. He's been a rink rat all his life. In the minors, my role was third- or fourth-line winger who worked hard defensively. If I contribute offense, it's a bonus."

The Penguins carried only six defensemen most of the season, so when Grant Jennings was injured in March, Daniels played four games on defense. At the March 22 trading deadline, the Penguins' faith in Daniels allowed them to trade left wing Bob Errey to Buffalo for defenseman Mike Ramsey.

"(Coach) Scotty Bowman just came in before a game and asked me if I'd take a few shifts on defense," Daniels said. "The next thing I knew, it was three or four shifts a period. It was the first time I'd ever played defense. I didn't know what to expect. The rest of the 'D' helped me. Then we got Ramsey and Peter Taglianetti. I was back on the wing."

Daniels got the last two goals in a 5-3 first-round clinching win over the New Jersey Devils and also scored in Game 1 of this series. "It's just a situation where I'm happy to be in the right place at the right time," Daniels said. "Hopefully, it'll continue.

"Most of the time, we're out there against their top line," he added. "Our first concern is not getting scored on. But if we get our chances, we've got to put them in. When you're a role player, you've got to know your role, accept it and play it. We feel good. We won once already in New York. We're going to have to play the same way: put a lot of shots on net, crash and get rebounds."

Daniels said he drew inspiration Monday night from a pain-free Mario Lemieux, who played 24 minutes and had two goals. "When we saw him out there on the first shift with a lot of jump in his legs, he looked great," Daniels said. "When the guys on the bench see that, it makes you want to go out and work harder."

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