Calgary Flames left-winger James Neal is a patient individual. This can be seen by his persistent play all season long, creating numerous scoring opportunities, dealing big hits when they mattered, and overall establishing an irrefutable physical presence on the ice. Despite his efforts, however, the veteran forward continually walked away empty-handed each game in terms of points.
While his work ethic is undeniable, the 2018-19 National Hockey League regular season has seen an ice cold Neal who has struggled to get on the Flames’ scoresheet. Reputed around the NHL as an offensive powerhouse and signing on with high expectations in Calgary, the hurdles Neal faced this season had many fans writing him off as an expensive flop.
In the midst of all the difficulties, Neal kept grinding away, shooting his shot, delivering big hits, and putting in the work that is expected of an acclaimed power forward. His relentless inputs would finally pay off late in the season, with the Flames’ recent victories having Neal’s signature all over them.
Neal Finally Scores As Flames Thrash the Ducks
It may not have been the prettiest goal, but it counts nonetheless. Against the broken down Anaheim Ducks last Friday night (March 29), fans at the Saddledome were delighted as the Flames put on a show. Getting whatever they wanted on both ends of the ice, Calgary annihilated Anaheim in a 6-1 rout. Contributing to the victory was none other than Neal, who had a goal credited to him in the most unlikely fashion.
Midway through the second period, Sean Monahan’s shot from the slot deflected off Neal and bounced past Ducks goalie Ryan Miller to give the Flames a 3-1 lead over the visitors. It was an awkward goal that was originally credited to Monahan, before a closer look concluded that Neal was the last to touch the puck.
Though not exactly a clear-cut path to the back of the net, this goal would be the first in a series of points for Neal. Building from this momentum, the experienced winger would find his hot hand in subsequent matchups, establishing a productivity streak that spanned most of Calgary’s upcoming road trip.
Red-Hot Neal Extends Point Streak Versus Sharks and Kings
Several nights later (March 31), in an emotional outing against the San Jose Sharks (shocking, I know), the Flames fought hard to come away with a 5-3 road victory. It was a big win for Calgary, allowing them to clinch the top spot in both the Pacific Division and the Western Conference. For his part, Neal notched an assist in the contest, contributing on a first-period goal by Mark Jankowski to give the Flames their first lead in the game.
Neal’s biggest scoring night thus far, however, occurred in the next contest in Southern California, with the Los Angeles Kings as the unlucky recipients.
The April 1 meeting between the Flames and Kings was a rather lopsided affair. On one end stood a Calgary team riding high off their newly minted division and conference victories. Contrasted on the other end was an eliminated Los Angeles club that had little reason to give it their all. While the result was predictable, the final score still managed to leave observers in awe. The surging Flames blew out the demoralized Kings in their own building, in a 7-2 performance that was difficult to watch at times.
In this momentous beat down, Neal walked away with one goal and one assist on the night, his first multi-point game in a very long time. The two points collected at Staples Center would mark the third game in a row that saw him record at least one point.
Playoff Implications for Neal’s Recent Successes
During the Flames’ recent three-game road trip through California, Neal recorded a total of three points in the first two games. The final matchup against Anaheim on Wednesday night (April 3) saw the Flames fall 3-1 to the Ducks, with most of the Calgary squad, including Neal, unable to get past Miller’s netminding. The Flames scaled down their lineups in this contest, resting a number of key players as part of their postseason preparation. Derek Ryan scored the lonely Calgary goal, with assists coming from Austin Czarnik and Johnny Gaudreau.
Despite coming up short in the last game, Neal still managed to capture four points overall in the previous four contests. The much-welcomed productivity of the veteran winger has added a new dynamic to Calgary’s offence as the playoffs quickly approach. Though he has struggled to score all season, he remained a highly-valued commodity for the Flames, not only because of his scoring potential, but also for his extensive playoff experience.
Thus far, he has already made a difference with his postseason expertise, schooling the younger Flames on keeping their cool and staying focused in the heat of the game. His impact was evident in that latest clash versus the Kings. Following a dirty hit by Kings defenceman Kurtis MacDermid on Sam Bennett in the second period, it was Neal who advised the less-experienced Flames to contain their emotion, and channel it in a productive way. Calgary then returned in the third period to score four goals against the Kings, as part of their 7-2 slaughter of MacDermid and company.
Alongside his playoff wisdom, the tenacious Neal has also been finding his scoring touch. As a result, the already high-powered Calgary offence has now found another postseason weapon in their arsenal. With his awakening in the final push of this 2018-19 campaign, the Flames’ playoff prospects have suddenly become that much brighter.