Neal’s Hat Trick Propels Pens Into East Final

Well, that was fun… My weekend that is! But you’re not reading this to hear about my Memorial Day festivities, are you? I digress…

I must say, it definitely feels good to be back discussing hockey again. And since I was away for the weekend, and Game Five fell on Friday night, this is my first article since the Pittsburgh Penguins dispatched the Ottawa Senators. So lets get to it, Shall we?

James Neal had a hat trick in the 6-2 series-clinching victory Friday night, while Kris Letang added a goal and two assists to help the Pens cruise into the Eastern Conference Final for the first time since 2009.

Oh That Tricky James Neal

(Marc DesRosiers-USA TODAY Sports)
(Marc DesRosiers-USA TODAY Sports)

After having one goal in his previous six playoff games, James Neal has erupted for five goals in the last two games to bring him within one of the playoffs lead (Crosby and Dupuis each have seven).

Neal had missed the final nine games of the regular season, and first two games of the playoffs after suffering a concussion against the Rangers on April 5th. Now sporting a tinted visor, he got off to a sluggish start after returning in game three against the Islanders, but seems to have found his mojo in games four and five against Ottawa.

After a two-goal effort in Game Four (a 7-3 Pens win, check out that recap here), Neal followed it up in Game Five with the hat trick. His first goal, in the second period after Brendan Morrow gave Pittsburgh a 1-0 lead, came on the power play during a scrum in front of Senators’ netminder Craig Anderson.

Anderson appeared to have trapped the puck under his skate blade, but Neal came in with the “pickle-stabber” to jam home the Pens’ second goal of the night. Here it is:

Fast forward to the third period, and a 4-1 Penguins’ lead thanks to goals by Kris Letang and Evgeni Malkin, and Neal cashed in this time, on an absolutely awful play by Sens’ defenseman Sergei Gonchar behind his own net. He tried feeding the puck over to Corey Conacher, but the puck went right to Neal’s blade and he rifled it over Anderson’s right shoulder for a 5-1 Pens’ lead. Below is the replay:

His third goal of the evening was without a doubt the prettiest. After taking a chip pass from Malkin in the defensive zone, Neal skated up ice, criss-crossed with Jarome Iginla, and then with a nifty toe-drag just abused Norris Trophy winner Erik Karlsson and beat Anderson high glove side for the final goal of the evening. Please enjoy the wonder that is, James Neal:

The Rest of the Goals

Matt Cooke
(Charles LeClaire-USA TODAY Sports)

Brenden Morrow, as I said above, kicked things off for the Penguins at 6:25 of the first period. Mark Eaton made a nice pass to Morrow right in front of Anderson after Matt Cooke beat Jared Cowan to the puck in the Senators’ zone. And despite having only three assists thus far in the postseason, Matt Cooke was one of the Penguins’ best players in this series vs. Ottawa.

Kris Letang added the third goal for Pittsburgh. After taking a pass from Tyler Kennedy, he skated to the middle of the ice and beat Anderson high glove side, through a Jussi Jokinen screen to extend the Pens’ advantage to 3-0.

After Milan Michalek got Ottawa on the board, Malkin scored on a breakaway with just 30 seconds left in the second frame to give Pittsburgh it’s 4-1 intermission lead.

Ottawa’s Disposal in a Nutshell

Most of the hockey world (including yours truly. Hence why I rooted for Boston to win that final regular season game) believed that the Senators would be a “better” (better=easier) matchup for the Pens. Had it not been for a Daniel Alfredsson goal with 30 seconds left in regulation in Game Three (and of course Colin Greening’s winner in the second OT), Ottawa would have been swept out of the playoffs after looking nearly flawless against Montreal in the first round. An inability to score (2-19 on the power play) combined with a sub-80% penalty kill (the Penguins were 6-25 with the man-advantage) is what led to the Senators’ dismissal.

In my humble opinion, Alfredsson, Ottawa’s captain, did nothing to help his team’s cause after Game Four. When asked if he felt his team could win three in a row against Pittsburgh, he responded “I don’t think so. They’re just too deep.” Not exactly a vote of confidence from the guy who has been this team’s leader for the better part of nearly two decades.

And despite how harsh I’ve been of Dan Bylsma’s coaching this postseason, in the end he showed why he’s the coach, and I’m just a hack of a hockey writer. Not panicking after the 2-1 double-overtime loss in Game Three, and a few minor adjustments here and there certainly contributed to Pittsburgh’s domination, especially in games four and five.

So it’s on to the Eastern Conference Final, again, for the first time since 2009. The Boston Bruins await the Penguins after dashing the Rangers’ hopes 4-1 in their semifinal matchup. So stay tuned for the ECF version of the En Fuego 5, coming later today or tomorrow.

Shameless Self-Promotion

Twitter is the best way to keep up with all of my work, as well as work from the rest of the great staff here at The Hockey Writers. If you’re not already following me then shame on you for six weeks. Please do so here:

On a side note, I’ll be auditioning to be a new host on Pittsburgh’s 93.7 The Fan at Dad’s Pub & Grub in Monroeville Wednesday night. If you’re local to that area, come on out between 7pm-9pm to either cheer me on or heckle me. Either way it’ll be a good time!

The late, great “Badger” Bob Johnson couldn’t have said it any better:

“Its a great day for hockey!!”