James Neal’s first act in Pittsburgh in Spring 2011 was slowed by a lack of chemistry and the struggle to adjust to a new city and team in the midst of a playoff run. His second act began with a new spot on Evgeni Malkin’s line and ended with 40 goals and a six-year, $30 million contract extension.
His third act in Pittsburgh is off to a flying start.
“That’s what I wanted to do,” Neal said of starting the season strong on Sunday. “That was my mindset coming in. Luckily enough things are working out. Keep shooting it and keep going to the net. Geno found me for two nice plays here.”
Neal potted two goals in Sunday’s romp over the Rangers at Madison Square Garden, completing the weekend hat trick and helping him off to another fast start to a season. The Penguins’ top winger finished second on the team in goals in points a year ago and fifth-best in the league with 40 goals, nearly half of which (18) came on the man-advantage.
Still playing a line with Malkin, Neal and the Penguins now have a healthy Sidney Crosby to lean upon in this lockout-shortened NHL season.
The Penguins led the NHL with 282 goals scored last season and are fast on their way to doing so again with 9 tallies in a weekend road set with the Rangers and Philadelphia Flyers. Neal and Malkin were the driving forces of that 282-goal group, adding 90 goals between them and finishing second and fifth, respectively, in the chase for the Rocket Richard Trophy (Steven Stamkos ran away with a league-best 60 markers).
With Neal and the Penguins off to another fast start, there’s plenty of reason to believe he can finish his third season in Pittsburgh with the Richard Trophy in tow.
Neal’s first stint with the Penguins, as mentioned, was hampered by the difficulty of adjusting to a new team and new city. Neal connected just twice in 27 games for the Penguins that year.
His adjustment was no doubt also slowed by working with linemates Mark Letestu and Alex Kovalev, a fringe-NHL center and aging scorer not in the mold of Dan Bylsma’s systems, while Malkin and Crosby sat with injuries.
This season, Neal is settled into Pittsburgh. He returns to a familiar line and familiar organization and can benefit from the relative security of his new, six-year contract extension. His focus can remain almost singularly on hockey for perhaps the first time since joining the Penguins in 2011.
It’s no secret what these to do for one another. Before being paired up to start the 2011-12 year, Neal was still coming off the 2-in-27 performance of Spring 2011 and Malkin was working to answer questions of his work ethic, and identical-to-Crosby-$8.7 million annual salary, after two subpar seasons and the rebound from reconstructive knee surgery.
By the end of the year, they and Chris Kunitz had become the most productive line in hockey.
Malkin and Neal are together once again and once again they are feeding off of one another. Malkin leads the league with four assists on the young season and Neal’s three goals trail only Marian Hossa.
On each of Neal’s three goals so far, Malkin has the primary assist.
New-look Power Play
The Penguins featured a very good power play team last season, finishing fifth in the NHL in power play success at a shade under 20 percent and second-best in the postseason by going 9-for-29 (31 percent) in six games against the Flyers.
As such, it was puzzling when Bylsma began working with a reconfigured unit in the short training camp, especially after having lost only Steve Sullivan from last year’s group.
The early returns are promising. The unit is 4-for-8 through two games.
Neal scored his first power play goal of the year Sunday after leading the league in that category a year ago with 18. As the new power play is designed, Malkin, Crosby and Letang will often be found along the same half of the ice in a cycle, overloading the defense to one side. Breaking out of the overload allows Neal to move up from the point into an abandoned slot with an uncontested shot at the net.
The system resulted in a goal Sunday and multiple quality looks over the weekend.
If the unit continues at the pace it set last weekend and in the playoffs last Spring, Neal’s goal total can only benefit.
Totem Pole Defense
As long as Malkin and Crosby are on the ice, Neal will never be more than the third-most important defensive assignment for opposing teams. Such was enough to help drive Jordan Staal in search of greener pastures (and more power play time) in Carolina.
For Neal, the pecking order means he’ll have just a little more open ice with which to work, especially when sharing regular minutes with Malkin and a power play with three of the game’s premier offensive options in Malkin, Crosby, and Letang.
Neal’s second goal Sunday was a perfect example of what playing with star power can do. Malkin followed the puck to the boards and three Rangers skaters gravitated toward the reigning MVP. The pinch again left Neal wide open in the slot, where he buried an uncontested wrist shot past Martin Biron.
As long as 87 and 71 are on the ice and drawing assignments, Neal is going to have more ice to himself than perhaps any 40-goal scorer in the NHL.
No Slow Finishes
When Neal came to the Penguins, the knock on him was that he disappeared down the stretch of the 82-game NHL season. Neal topped out at 27 goals with Dallas in 2009-10 before gathering 40 with the Penguins last season.
In each of his three seasons with Dallas, Neal never scored more than six goals after the trade deadline.
The carryover was felt in his first stint in Pittsburgh, although that can easily be explained by reasons listed above. Last year, Neal continued his strong play through the end of the season, especially once Sidney Crosby returned. Neal added 8 goals and 10 assists after the February 27 trade deadline, as well as 2 goals and 6 points in 6 postseason games.
With only 48 games to be played this year due to the owners lockout and a new precedent for consistent production, Neal figures to play strong throughout the rest of the shortened season.
James was a Penguins contributor at THW and SB Nation Pensburgh and owns the Pittsburgh sports blog Slew Footers.