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Trevor Daley grateful for opportunity with Penguins

Injured when Pittsburgh won Cup last season, defenseman glad to be facing Capitals

by Nicholas J. Cotsonika @cotsonika / NHL.com Columnist

Third period. Game 6 of the 2016 Stanley Cup Final. Pittsburgh Penguins defenseman Trevor Daley watched on television and put on his uniform in a secret locker room at SAP Center.

The Penguins held a 2-1 lead in the game and a 3-2 lead in the series against the San Jose Sharks. Daley and the others not in the lineup couldn't use the main locker room, because if the Sharks came back, they'd have to take off their uniforms and pretend they weren't ready to celebrate.

"We were in hiding," Daley said.

 

[RELATED: Complete Capitals vs. Penguins series coverage]

 

Then Patric Hornqvist scored an empty-net goal to make it 3-1 with 1:02 to go. Daley and the others crammed into the tunnel. As the final seconds expired, they caught glimpses of the action and heard the crowd. When the final horn sounded, they rushed onto the ice.

Penguins captain Sidney Crosby received the Stanley Cup, took a victory lap and handed off to Daley.

It was bittersweet. Daley had been out nine games with a broken ankle. But he had been able to spend time with his mother, Trudy, who was in the hospital with cancer, and she was able to see him kiss the Cup and lift it for the first time in a 12-season NHL career.

He spoke to her on the ice via video chat. She died nine days later.

"Things happen for a reason," Daley said.

Video: NSH@PIT: Daley cranks a top-shelf slapper

Having gone through that gives Daley a unique hunger this year. The Penguins play the Washington Capitals in Game 1 of their Eastern Conference Second Round series at Verizon Center on Thursday (7:30 p.m. ET; NBCSN, SN, TVA Sports).

"Right when the situation happened that I was out and the boys went on to the Final, my first thing was, 'I can't wait to get to do this,' " Daley said. "You got to be a part of it. You got to see it. But you still didn't get to go out there and perform. Yeah, to get back to that spot is something that I've been thinking about since last year."

Daley spent his first 11 NHL seasons with the Dallas Stars. He appeared in the Stanley Cup Playoffs five times, advancing as far as the Western Conference Final in 2008.

The Stars traded him to the Chicago Blackhawks on July 10, 2015, but he didn't fit in coach Joel Quenneville's system. The Blackhawks flipped him to the Penguins on Dec. 14, 2015, two days after the Penguins promoted coach Mike Sullivan from Wilkes-Barre/Scranton of the American Hockey league. He fit Sullivan's system fine.

At his best, Daley adds mobility to the blue line and helps the Penguins push the puck up ice with speed. He was an important part of their team until he was injured.

Video: PIT@CAR: Daley steals the puck, buries big slapper

Because he knew his season was over, he didn't study the games from a hockey standpoint. He was more of a cheerleader. But he noticed something about Crosby and the other Penguins who had won the Cup before.

"Every day was the same," Daley said. "That was something I kind of looked for, just coming around, not being a part of it, how the guys were reacting or what type of moods they were in. It was just a normal day around there."

Was it surprising?

"Well, yeah, because I wasn't having a normal day," Daley said with a laugh. "I think when you're in it and you're playing, I think it might be a little bit easier. You can focus in on it. When you're not playing, you're upset you're not in it. There's nothing you can do other than just smile around the room and help out."

Daley injured his knee against the Carolina Hurricanes on Feb. 21, had surgery, missed 20 games and got in two games before the playoffs. He still isn't 100 percent. Nor is partner Olli Maatta, who injured his hand against the Winnipeg Jets on Feb. 16, had surgery, missed 25 games and got in one game before the playoffs.

"At this time of the year you have to bring it," Daley said. "You've got to find other ways to get jobs done even if you don't feel good about it. I think my game's mostly back. Timing's definitely back. When you're put in this situation, it's all-out, so I think the next day after games is usually when I'm not feeling myself."

Video: ARI@PIT: Daley scorches a one-timer home from slot

But Maatta averaged 20:57 of ice time in the Penguins' five-game victory against the Columbus Blue Jackets in the first round, second on the Penguins. Daley was third at 20:22.

"I think they're getting better with each game they play," Penguins coach Mike Sullivan said. "I think their timing's getting better. Their conditioning's getting better. Their game conditioning is getting much better. You know, these guys are good players. We rely on them."

Especially with No. 1 defenseman Kris Letang out for the season with a neck injury. For the Penguins to become the first team to repeat since the Detroit Red Wings in 1998, they probably can't afford to have Daley hiding in a secret locker room this June. He will have to do what he has been thinking about since last year.

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