PITTSBURGH -- It has not been the easiest Stanley Cup Playoffs for James Neal.
He scored once in the Pittsburgh Penguins' first nine postseason games and managed three assists. It was not up to the expectations Neal has for himself or those the team has for him. The struggles also were a bit of a reminder about the ones he experienced in his first two postseasons with Pittsburgh after arriving in a trade from the Dallas Stars.
The Penguins flamed out in each of those first-round series, and Neal was one of the many scapegoats after managing three goals in 12 games.
That all changed in a stunning display across the final two games of this Eastern Conference Semifinal. Neal scored five goals -- including a hat trick in the clinching 6-2, Game 5 win against the Ottawa Senators on Friday at Consol Energy Center -- and seven points in a two-game display of the offensive magic that made him a trade target in the first place.
Friday, Neal capped his first postseason hat trick with a long rush up ice and a wrist shot that eluded Ottawa goalie Craig Anderson. As the hats rained down and the crowd partied in their seats, Neal broke into a huge smile, shedding the stoic visage that had been his trademark for much of the past three playoffs.
"That was a smile for a lot of things -- mainly just feeling the emotions that we are going to win and the series is going to be done," Neal said. "That was the biggest thing. Any time you score, it feels good. Doing it in front of the home crowd and getting this win, it was special."
Neal's play during the past two games also was special.
His offensive brilliance in Game 4 on Wednesday helped turn a 2-1 lead by Ottawa into an eventual 7-3 series-changing win for Pittsburgh. He was even better Friday.
After Brenden Morrow gave Pittsburgh the lead in the first period, Neal provided a valuable two-goal advantage with a second-period power-play goal. He located a loose puck in the crease after Anderson misplayed a Kris Letang shot/pass from behind the goal line and beat the Ottawa defenders to the puck to poke it home.
The prettiest play for Neal may not have even been a goal. It may have been his assist on a goal by Evgeni Malkin in the last minute of the second period that gave Pittsburgh a 4-1 lead. Penguins coach Dan Bylsma called it the most important goal of the game because it restored a three-goal edge less than three minutes after Milan Michalek scored for Ottawa to give Pittsburgh a bit of pause.
On the play, which came 4-on-4, Neal caused a turnover then immediately looked up to find Malkin behind the Ottawa defense. Neal crisply head-manned a pass to Malkin, who finished clinically.
The third period was Neal's show. He scored Pittsburgh's fifth goal when he picked the puck off the stick of Erik Karlsson, the defending Norris Trophy defenseman, and waltzed in front for an unassisted goal. Neal finished his night with the end-to-end score.
It was, simply, a tour de force.
"I mean we have a lot of scary guys up front, but James, with his big shot, he can score a lot of big goals at key moments and I think he came up big tonight," Letang said.
While the Penguins wait for their next opponent -- it could be either the Boston Bruins or New York Rangers -- Neal will relish the biggest night of his playoff career, using it as fuel to build his confidence.
"We're going to keep going and doing the same thing," Neal said, speaking of the team but knowing the lesson applies to him individually. "We're confident that if we do the same thing, we'll get results and keep going."
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