Painful layoff ends for Penguins' Jeffrey
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TAMPA, Fla. -- It likely did not seem like much to most observers that with Penguins penalty-killer Pascal Dupuis serving a tripping penalty Friday night at Florida, Dustin Jeffrey played while the team was shorthanded.
He also got a smidgen of time on the power play and was on the ice when linemate Tyler Kennedy scored in a 4-1 win against the Panthers.
For Jeffrey, 23, being involved and counted on was a long time coming.
He will play his 49th NHL game today and first against Tampa Bay, and it will be his third in a row after a series of steps and setback the past several years.
He thought he had finally locked his hands on a spot in the NHL late last season, but a torn anterior cruciate ligament in his right knee a few weeks before the playoffs knocked him out of the lineup.
"Dustin's a guy we think real highly of," Penguins coach Dan Bylsma said Saturday. "He's played a limited amount of games for our team in the past two or three years, but his numbers have been good. He can play in different situations. He can add some offense.
"He's certainly going to be counted on to keep raising his game."
A heady, versatile forward who can be strong at both ends of the ice, Jeffrey lasted until the seventh round of the 2007 draft before the Penguins took him 171st overall. While working his way up from juniors to the American Hockey League with a few NHL games here and there, he repeatedly attended summer development camps and preseason rookie tournaments, until he was no longer eligible. He gravitated between his natural position, center, and the left wing.
Last year, HBO's "24/7" cameras captured general manager Ray Shero giving Jeffrey a short pep talk one of several times the Penguins had to send him back to Wilkes-Barre/Scranton because the team needed to make a move and he was the forward who didn't need to clear waivers.
By the time he got hurt, though, he had played in 25 games in 2010-11 and earned the confidence of the organization.
"When I came in last year and I was able to contribute right away, I thought, 'It's all coming together.'" Jeffrey said. "I think right now that's what I'm trying to come back to."
He had seven goals, 12 points in those 25 games last season. He missed training camp and the first eight games this season dealing because of his surgically repaired knee. He went pointless in six games and agreed to a conditioning assignment at Wilkes-Barre before it was determined he needed to step back and let the knee heal more.
Things accelerated the past couple of weeks. He began skating, then practicing and, Wednesday, got back in the lineup. In the past two games, he has no points but is averaging 14 minutes, 46 seconds while centering the second line between Dupuis and Kennedy.
"It's reacting in a positive way," Jeffrey said of his knee. "I'm really happy with the opportunity and getting lots of minutes."
It's nearly as if the past nine months did not happen.
"He was playing really well last year before got hurt," Dupuis said. "You can see it in his stride -- the way he skates, how strong he is -- that his injury is feeling much better and he's back to the point where you should come back to play hockey."
Jeffrey wants to work on some areas, such as faceoffs -- he has won eight of 23 in the two games -- but, so far, his comeback has been fairly successful.
"There's a lot more willingness and compete in his game than there is maybe conditioning and being game-ready," Bylsma said. "Tough for Dustin this year.
"Now he's playing with not very many games, no training camp and not very much conditioning. He's been able to step in and play pretty good hockey for us."
First Published January 15, 2012 12:00 am