OTTAWA – James Neal had expressed confidence in his game prior to Game 4 of the Eastern Conference Semifinals, but deep down, his inability to score once in the first three games of the best-of-7 series was weighing on him.
"It felt good," Neal said after scoring twice and adding an assist in the Pittsburgh Penguins' 7-3 win against the Ottawa Senators on Wednesday night. "I felt snake-bitten after having some good looks and not being able to finish. Our team's been playing well, so as long as we win, I'm not worried about scoring. But it did feel good to chip in tonight."
The Penguins lead the series 3-1, with Game 5 slated for Friday in Pittsburgh (7:30 p.m. ET; NBCSN, CBC, RDS).
When Neal hit the far post from a sharp angle early in the game, he couldn't help but raise his eyes to the sky and wonder when he would finally find the back of the net.
He didn't need to wait long, scoring off an offensive zone draw later in the first to tie the game, a play that required a high level of skill that was indicative of the way Neal has been playing, but was finally rewarded for.
"The first one we got was a pretty special shot by James," Penguins coach Dan Bylsma said. "I don't think too many guys can pull that off."
Neal was not the only member of his line to snap a slump as Jarome Iginla also scored his first two goals of the series, providing the Penguins attack with more balance in support of their other scoring line of Sidney Crosby, Chris Kunitz and Pascal Dupuis.
"Those guys are playing good hockey," Crosby said of Neal and Iginla. "In the playoffs, everyone's under the microscope, especially the guys that score a lot. So to see them score, that's great. But they've been doing a lot of good things for us. It's tight-checking, so you've got to take advantage of your chances when you get them. It's always great to see your teammates have success, especially those guys who take so much pride in scoring goals."
Though Neal insisted Tuesday that his scoring slump was not getting him down, the relief on his face Wednesday indicated otherwise, something teammate Brooks Orpik confirmed was the case when he spoke of how Neal's game changed after he scored early in Game 4.
"He got that goal and you could see his confidence grow exponentially right away," Orpik said. "The rest of his game started getting a lot better, not just his offensive game. He looked like he had more jump and his defensive game was better and he was just going.
"It just shows you how big confidence is in this game."
Neal's second goal of the game came on the power play early in the third period, converting a lucky bounce off the end boards into an empty net to score what turned out to be the game-winner. It was exactly the type of bounce Neal hadn't been getting of late, but which came after he got that first goal of the series out of the way.
"It wasn't just a big goal for our power play, it was a big goal for James as well," Bylsma said. "He's a guy that just needs one. He's been talking about that and felt that last game. But he came through for us and was a big factor, with his line and the power play, in getting those two goals."