Neal scored 1:03 into overtime to give the Penguins a 4-3 victory against the Carolina Hurricanes on Friday.
Neal, who had been denied on two superb chances earlier in the game, fed Jussi Jokinen on a 2-on-2 rush, slipped between the defensemen to take a return pass, and ripped a wrist shot from the slot past Justin Peters for his 11th goal of the season.
"I think it's in the coach's manual that you try not to look too hard at the game after Christmas break," said Penguins coach Dan Bylsma, whose team has been riddled with injuries and had to fly to Raleigh, N.C., on Friday morning after three days off.
Deryk Engelland, returning after serving a five-game suspension, gave the Penguins a 3-2 lead when his slap shot from just above the right circle trickled past Peters into the net at 13:15 of the third period. But Drayson Bowman tied the game with 2:29 remaining in regulation when his wraparound deflected off goaltender Marc-Andre Fleury into the net.
The Penguins, who spent much of the night turning over the puck, wouldn't quit.
"It was a game where we never really played where we wanted to play," said Neal, who had a pair of assists.
"The puck was bouncing a lot, and we turned it over a lot. I think this shows how this team has matured and changed. We regrouped. We didn't let it bother us. We came right back. I like the way we responded."
"It would have been nice to get two points tonight, but getting the late goal was a big booster to get the one point," Peters said.
Fleury won in his 500th regular-season game. Neal's goal came seconds after Fleury received a large welt on his throat from a shot in overtime but told the referee that stopping action wasn't necessary.
"Marc was our best player tonight," Bylsma said. "We left him with tough scoring chances. He made the big saves. With our puck management, we gave them a lot of opportunities."
The victory was the eighth in nine games for the Penguins (28-11-1), who lead the Eastern Conference with 57 points and are running away with the top spot in the Metropolitan Division. Carolina (14-15-9) fell to 0-2-2 in its past four games.
The Hurricanes carried the play for most of the first period, outshooting Pittsburgh 16-7, but needed almost all of the first 20 minutes to get the first goal.
With time running down, Sekera moved way down from the left point, took a passout from Jordan Staal, and whipped a backhand from the slot under Fleury's arm 1.3 seconds before intermission for his seventh goal of the season. It came a minute after the Penguins had an apparent goal waved off because the referee was in the process of blowing the play dead before the puck crossed the goal line during a scramble.
"They probably outchanced us eight or nine to one or two in the first period," Bylsma said. "Luckily we were able to get back in the thing."
Each team scored in the first 30 seconds of the second period.
Crosby tied it 16 seconds after the faceoff. Olli Maatta kept the puck in at the left point and got the puck to Neal. He fed Crosby, whose backhand from the lower right circle beat Peters. It was Crosby's 21st goal and NHL-high 55th point.
The Hurricanes needed 14 seconds to regain the lead. Alexander Semin cut off a clearing attempt along the right half-wall in Pittsburgh's zone and fired the puck toward the net. Fleury made the save, but Gerbe found the loose puck in the crease and slipped it home for his eighth of the season and a 2-1 lead.
Peters made the best save of the game to that point with 4:24 left in the period by denying Neal's wide-open one-timer from the slot off a pass by Crosby.
Pittsburgh got even again 1:58 into the third period. Conner took Jokinen's breakout pass, made a move to get inside of defenseman Ryan Murphy, and got Peters to open up enough to slide a backhand through the five-hole for his fourth of the season.
"Starting the third [period], you can't be afraid to have the lead and play," Carolina coach Kirk Muller said. "You have to keep playing like the first two periods. You can't sit back. That's what we've tried to emphasize."
Peters preserved the tie three minutes later when he robbed Neal from the slot again, this time after a Carolina turnover.
The Penguins got Engelland back from a suspension, and defenseman Brooks Orpik returned from an injury. But Pittsburgh learned earlier in the day that forward Pascal Dupuis, who usually plays on Crosby's line, will need season-ending knee surgery.
Material from team media was used in this report
|Andrej Sekera (7) ASST: Jordan Staal (10), Nathan Gerbe (10)|
1 - 0 CAR
|Sidney Crosby (21) ASST: James Neal (13), Olli Maatta (9)|
1 - 1 Tie
|Nathan Gerbe (8) ASST: Alexander Semin (9)|
2 - 1 CAR
|Chris Conner (4) ASST: Jussi Jokinen (15), James Neal (14)|
2 - 2 Tie
|Deryk Engelland (3) ASST: Brooks Orpik (7), Jussi Jokinen (16)|
3 - 2 PIT
|Drayson Bowman (3) ASST: Riley Nash (6), Patrick Dwyer (6)|
3 - 3 Tie
|James Neal (11) ASST: Jussi Jokinen (17), Deryk Engelland (4)|
4 - 3 PIT
|Chuck Kobasew Hooking against Patrick Dwyer|
|Drayson Bowman Hooking against Olli Maatta|