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Neal hoping for warm reception in Dallas return

Wednesday, 02.29.2012 / 3:07 PM / NHL Insider

By Steve Hunt - NHL.com Correspondent

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Neal hoping for warm reception in Dallas return
Penguins forward James Neal said he enjoyed his three seasons with the Dallas Stars, and is hoping the fans remember his time there fondly, as well.
DALLAS -- Wednesday will mark the first game for James Neal in Dallas since he was traded to the Penguins last February. And the Pittsburgh forward and 2012 NHL All-Star admits he's hoping for a warm reception from the fans at American Airlines Center after the solid three seasons he had with the Stars.

"Yeah, that would be nice," he said of a positive fan reaction. "I definitely enjoyed my time here. It was a great group of guys, had fun, and on to a new page in my career. It'll be weird for a bit to start, but I'm sure it'll continue to be another road game and that'll take care of itself."

Neal was a second-round pick (No. 33) of the Stars in 2005 and started his NHL career with three-straight 20-goal seasons. But with the Stars looking to add some offense to their blue line, he was dealt -- along with defenseman Matt Niskanen -- to the Penguins for defenseman Alex Goligoski.

James Neal
Left Wing - PIT
GOALS: 30 | ASST: 31 | PTS: 61
SOG: 253 | +/-: 1
He didn't have the desired impact when he arrived -- he had just 1 goal in 20 regular-season games and 1 goal in seven playoff games -- but this season has been a 180-degree turnaround. He's fourth in the League with 30 goals, 10th with 61 points, second with 13 power-play goals and second with 243 shots on goal. With 20 regular-season games left, he's already set new single-season highs in goals (30), assists (31) and points.

Neal said Wednesday's game is one he’s had circled on his calendar almost for the past year.

"I kind of expected it to be a little weird," he said. "I played three years here and started my career here. It's definitely different walking by the room and going past it, the normal things that you would do. It's definitely weird going on the ice and coming off from the skate and walking down the hallway. I'm on a new page now. It will be an exciting game tonight. They're fighting for a playoff spot and we're fighting to catch the teams ahead of us."

Pittsburgh coach Dan Bylsma raved about what Neal has meant to his club since arriving last season, but singled Neal out for one somewhat underrated quality he has seen so far this season.

"I don't know what to be surprised about," Bylsma said, "whether it's getting to 30 goals after 62 games or how well he played in getting assists and points on that line (with Evgeni Malkin and Chris Kunitz). We anticipated James being a 30-plus goal guy in this League. I'm not sure we totally anticipated him being a guy who could play in, with and off of the real skill guy in terms of giving him the puck back as well."

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And it's that strong chemistry Neal has shown with Malkin that also has earned high praise from his coach.

"Maybe the biggest surprise that I've seen in his game is his ability to play with Malkin and give the puck back to Malkin in the right spots," Bylsma said. "Certainly his shot and his goal-scoring has been very good for 5-on-5 and power play in terms of having a trigger guy on the power play, but again, just fitting in with Malkin, that line, and being able to give the puck back to him and his passing ability has been a big factor in the success of that line."

As important as Neal has been to the Penguins' success this season, Niskanen also has played a solid supporting role.

Niskanen, the Stars' 2005 first-round pick (No. 28), is showing the form of his first two seasons, when he had 13 goals and 61 points between 2007 and 2009. His 3 goals and 18 points this season are second among the team's defensemen to Kris Letang, and he's second to Brooks Orpik among the team's blueliners with a plus-8 rating in 18:06 of ice time per game.

"Lots of good ones, some bad ones, too, but I think what sticks out the most is my first year being here, having the success I did both individually and the run we made in the playoffs, going to the Western Conference Finals. That was kind of the peak, I think my best Dallas Stars memory," Niskanen said.

One of his assignments Wednesday could be to try to limit the impact Dallas center Jamie Benn, who will return from a six-game absence with a leg injury, has on the game.

"He's a package deal," Niskanen said. "He's got a lot of tools. He's got good size; he can really skate for a bigger guy. He's got a good set of hands and a quick shot. He's a really hungry player, plays hard and he really wants the puck all the time. He's a good one. I think he is only going to get better and better. He's a lot to handle for teams."

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