The Pittsburgh Penguins' left wing still keeps up with the team he started his NHL career with before he was traded to Pittsburgh with defenseman Matt Niskanen last February in the three-player deal that sent puck-moving defenseman Alex Goligoski to Dallas. It was a trade that benefited both teams, and one that each team probably would make again.
So while he plays for one of the NHL's highest-profile teams in Pittsburgh, Neal is glad to see his former team doing so unexpectedly well. Without Neal and top center Brad Richards, the Stars took a League-leading 22 points into their matchup of conference leaders Friday with Pittsburgh, which has an Eastern Conference-best 21 points (7 p.m. ET, NHLN-US).
"You always kind of get hidden when you play in Dallas, but they're starting to poke their heads out and they've gotten off to a great start," Neal said. "It will be a fun night, two good teams playing each other."
SOG: 64 | +/-: -2
"How have they pulled that off?" Neal said. "Lots of things. They've got a lot of other great players with Jamie Benn and Brenden Morrow and Mike Ribeiro, Loui Eriksson and (Stephane) Robidas. There's a ton of guys who can carry the load. Kari (Lehtonen) is having a great year and he's been steady ever since he came over."
The Stars have had great scoring balance, with Eriksson scoring a team-best eight goals, Michael Ryder adding six and Benn scoring five. But it's Lehtonen who has been a difference-maker.
Going into the game Friday, Lehtonen is 11-1-0 with a 2.13 goals-against average and a .936 save percentage. No team in the League, much less any other goalie, had as many wins.
Lehtonen has been to the Stars what former Stanley Cup winner Marc-Andre Fleury has been to Pittsburgh: Steady at all times and frequently spectacular, with no off-nights and a whole lot of very good nights.
Fleury is 8-2-1 with a 1.95 goals-against average, and building upon his strong 2010-11 season in which he was chosen as the Penguins' MVP, now is considered to be one of the NHL's elite goalies.
Goaltending like Fleury's can carry a team even when it is without key players, as the Penguins have been with Crosby sidelined, forward Evgeni Malkin (knee) in and out of the lineup, and defensemen Zbynek Michalek (broken finger) and Brooks Orpik (sports hernia) also sitting out for long stretches.
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Neal most of all -- he has 9 goals and 5 assists in 15 games -- or 8 more goals than he had in the 20 games after he was traded to Pittsburgh last season.
"I think James came in last year and played very similar to the way he's playing now. I think he showed skating ability, he showed how he could hunt pucks," Penguins coach Dan Bylsma said. "He was around the net, he was dangerous, he had great scoring chances -- he just didn't score. I think he felt the pressure to score those goals, especially with the (injury) absence of Crosby and Malkin. I think everyone felt, and he felt, he was brought in to score for us. So maybe he was always pressing last year."
Bylsma doesn't worry that Neal will press against the Stars, even though it's human nature to want to play well against one's former team. Neal had 21 goals in 59 games with Dallas last season.
"It's always a significant thing when a player is traded, to look across and see the jersey they wore, were drafted in, grew up in, developed in and played for," Bylsma said. "It's unique. There's an added incentive to the game. Hopefully, that's motivation to come out on your game and play really well and not get distracted by things that are out of your control. It's a special game for everybody included in that trade."