A Penguins player flies past a defender, picks up a loose puck along the left wing, skates toward the net and unleashes a wicked wrister past a goaltender with pinpoint accuracy.
Sounds like Sidney Crosby or Evgeni Malkin, right?
Try Jeff Taffe. That’s exactly how he netted his first goal with the Penguins when he torched the Capitals and goaltender Brent Johnson for Pittsburgh’s first goal in a 4-3 win.
“It was good. I think I’d rather get a tip-in, though,” he said with a laugh. “I had so much time. It kind of makes you nervous when you have so much time to think. I was going to pass, but I figured I might as well shoot it and it worked out well.”
Not only was it his first goal with the Penguins, but it was his first point in four games since he joined the team from Pittsburgh’s top minor-league club in Wilkes-Barre/Scranton.
“It was great. It was kind of nerve-wracking coming to a new team and everything,” he said. “You want to try to show what you can do, so I was maybe gripping the stick a little tight, but it was a good break. I don’t think they expected the energy out of our line, so whenever we can chip in, it’s a bonus.”
One may not expect that sort of goal from a player on the fourth line. However, Taffe (pronounced TAY-ff) certainly has a goal-scorer’s pedigree. He led the Baby Penguins with 21 points (12+9) in 27 games and enjoyed a tremendous scholastic and collegiate career.
|Jeff Taffe is back in the NHL with the Penguins |
A standout player for Hastings High School, Taffe was named the Minnesota High School Player of the Year in 1999 after recording 90 points (39+51) in only 28 games. The 6-foot-3, 207-pounder joined the University of Minnesota in 1999-2000 and spent three seasons with the team. In his final season with the Golden Gophers he ranked second in the NCAA with 34 goals and finished fifth overall with 58 points while leading his team to the 2002 NCAA Championship. For his Minnesota career, he racked up 114 points (56+58) in 120 games.
“It was unbelievable to win a championship there,” he said. “It was a pretty neat feeling. There were a lot of good teams that year, but we had a pretty good team. To win it at Minnesota was huge. People still talk about it back there, so it was huge.”
A 2000 first-round draft pick (30th overall) by the St. Louis Blues, Taffe’s rights were dealt to Phoenix in the 2001 Keith Tkachuk trade. He made his NHL debut with Phoenix in the 2002-03 season and finished with four points (3+1) in 20 games. He took another step forward the next season with 18 points (8+10) in 59 games with the Coyotes.
However, the NHL work stoppage wiped out the next season, which halted his NHL progression. He appeared in 15 AHL games that season before a broken orbital bone ended his year.
“My second pro year, I played almost the entire year with Phoenix,” he said. “The lockout year was right after that, so I only played 15 games. I got hurt in the AHL and was done for the year. I have kind of been struggling to find how I need to play every night to have a spot in the lineup.”
Always a goal scorer, Taffe battled his way back into the Phoenix lineup before he was traded to the New York Rangers in the 2005-06 season. The Coyotes re-acquired him last year, but he appeared in only 17 games with the team and was in the AHL for another 59.
“It’s taken me a while. The first few years out, I was more in power-play roles in Phoenix and more of a goal scorer,” he said. “Now, I am 26 and it’s taken me this long that, every night, I just have to skate and play the body and do the little things that’ll get me another shift and that’s when I might get a chance.”
A free agent this summer, he signed with the Penguins.
“It’s unbelievable. When I heard they might be interested this summer, I was kind of shocked,” he said. “They have such a good group of young players. I think they have a great mix going on right now. Anytime you can get on one of these teams and just try to fit in, it’s a real honor.”
Always productive at the AHL level, Taffe proved again this year he could rack up points in Wilkes-Barre/Scranton. However, he knows in the NHL that his role is to bring energy, be physical, defensively responsible and then chip with points whenever the opportunities appear. He knows that if he carries out those responsibilities, his role could increase, especially in the offensive zone.
“The same thing happened to me last year when I got called up toward the end of the year,” he said. “I started on the fourth line and slowly worked my way up. A lot of things happen every game. As long as you give a consistent effort, people will give you a chance.”
Taffe made a late push to remain on the Penguins’ roster during training camp, but was among the team’s final cuts. He did not let the demotion impact his outlook.
“There’s nothing you can do about that. You have to have the right attitude whenever you play in the American Hockey League,” he said. “It’s a tough league to play in. It’s one of those things where, if you keep sticking with it, I’ve seen a lot of crazy things happen over the years. It’s one of those deals where, if you play well, you’ll get a chance somewhere.”
He has not had a difficult time adjusting to the Penguins’ systems.
“No. I really enjoy the way they play with so much speed and pursuing the puck and things like that,” he said. “With the guys we have and the speed, it’s not tough. It’s just a matter of getting a little confidence for however many games you’re here for and slowly try to do a little more.”
And, Taffe is getting more comfortable on the ice with the Penguins.
“It’s always nerve-wracking to be in a new environment. The guys were great during training camp,” he said. “I got sent down for a while there, but came back. It gets better every day. There’s a great team group here that shows a lot of respect.”
He wants to continue his hard work on and off the ice because he knows those efforts don’t go overlooked within the Penguins’ organization.
“I think that shows a lot about the organization,” he said. “I think it’s good for the farm team and the guys coming up, it shows them that, if you work hard and stick to it and do what you can, you’ll get an opportunity.”
Taffe is paying attention to the World Junior Championships as well. He played for Team USA in the 2000 and ’01 tournaments – leading the Americans in points in ’00.
“It was great. It was a lot of fun,” he said. “No one follows that tournament as much as the Canadians do, but I do check on it a little bit. I’ll read up on it.”
And, he would like to represent his country again in the future.
“Growing up, I was on all the U.S. teams, so you never know when your last chance to play for your country is going to be, so it’s always an honor if you get selected for something like that,” he said. “Hey, I’d be more than thrilled if got selected for something like that in the future.”