PITTSBURGH -- James Neal was motivated to play against his former team -- it was quickly apparent. Every shift seemed to produce a shot, a scoring chance, a creative play
The Stars, more than any team, know all too well what can happen when Neal plays like that.
Neal scored twice on the power play against his former team after the Penguins had two apparent goals waved off, Matt Cooke added a penalty-shot goal and Pittsburgh shut down Dallas' offense to win the matchup of early-season conference leaders 3-1 on Friday night.
Fittingly enough on 11-11-11, a motivated Neal raised his goal total to 11 as the Sidney Crosby-less Penguins improved their Eastern Conference-leading record to 10-3-3 and raised their points total to 23.
Neal was playing this same way before Dallas dealt him to Pittsburgh nine months ago, getting 21 goals in 59 games with the Stars.
"I think he was ready to shoot the puck any time it came near him," said Penguins coach Dan Bylsma, who was aware Neal wanted to have a big night in his first game against his former team. "Every chance he got it was going to the cage."
The Stars (11-4-0), who came in as the surprise leaders in the Western Conference with 22 points, saw their four-game winning streak ended by an excellent defensive effort from Pittsburgh, which limited the NHL's No. 3 offense to 20 shots. Pittsburgh had 32 shots, 10 by the line of Neal, Evgeni Malkin and Steve Sullivan.
The Penguins also showed a bit of determination as they twice saw the puck go into the net without being awarded a goal, only to regroup and score within seconds. Both goals were by Neal, who had just one goal in 20 games after being traded last season but now is scoring at a Crosby-like pace.
"It's always nice against your former team, but the main thing is us playing a top team and beating them," Neal said.
Stars defenseman Alex Goligoski, acquired for Neal and defenseman Matt Niskanen in a trade made close to the deadline, sat out the final two periods with an apparent left thumb injury in his first game back in Pittsburgh. For much of the second period, the Stars were down to four defensemen after Mark Fistric took a puck to the neck.
"The structure of these two teams – get the pucks deep, (play) strong on the blue lines, (go) hard on forecheck -- it grinds you down," Stars captain Brenden Morrow said. "When you have four d-men, it's pretty tough."
Especially when a player on the other side is so determined to produce against the team whose jersey he wore at this time last season.
With Dallas up 1-0 on Eric Nystrom's goal from the slot following an end-to-end series of four passes, Chris Kunitz redirected Malkin's one-timer from the right circle past Kari Lehtonen at 17:32 of the second period. But the apparent power-play goal was waved off because Kunitz's stick was judged to be above the crossbar.
Rather than complaining, the Penguins began pressing to score one that counted. Just 24 seconds later, Neal settled down Kunitz's pass to the left circle and cranked a shot that deflected off Lehtonen and barely trickled across the goal line to tie it at 1-1.
"I don't know if I've seen a better response from a team," Bylsma said. "That's pretty impressive, to get back out there, not put your head down, get ready to execute again and take advantage of what's left (of the power play)."
Remarkably, there was a similar sequence in the third period even before Dallas got off its first shot of the period. With the score still tied at 1-1, Malkin threw a wrist shot from the right circle past Lehtonen at 6:56, but Kunitz – again – crashed into the goalie just as the puck arrived and knocked his stick away, negating the goal.
Didn't matter. Again.
This time, the Penguins needed only 23 seconds to score. With Sheldon Souray off for high sticking, Neal attempted to steer a pass through the slot to Sullivan along the edge of the crease, but the puck deflected off Fistric, who by now was back in the game, and into Dallas' net.
"All year, we've come up with timely goals, key goals at the right time," Neal said.
Pittsburgh finished it off with a penalty shot score from an unlikely source.
A little more than two minutes after Neal's second goal, Trevor Daley tried to poke-check the puck off Cooke's stick as Cooke skated hard toward the net but tripped him instead. On the penalty shot, a deliberate Cooke went wide, then shifted his forehand to his backhand and back to his forehead to wrist a shot over a stationary Lehtonen's blocker at 9:28.
"Thankfully we practice it a lot and I felt remotely comfortable out there," said Cooke, a player known far more for his physicality and toughness than his breakaway scoring ability.
Lehtonen, a League-leading 11-1-0 coming in, stopped 29 of 32 shots but lost for the first time in six road decisions. Marc-Andre Fleury made 19 saves in improving to 5-0 against Dallas, which is winless in five games in Pittsburgh since Oct. 24, 2001.
The Stars, denied a third consecutive victory during a challenging four-game road trip that winds up Saturday night in Detroit, withstood Pittsburgh's 13-5 shots advantage in the first period to take a 1-0 lead on Nystrom's goal. But they didn't get any more against Fleury, who is 9-2-1 overall and 6-0-1 in his last seven.
"We didn't have normal jump normally do," Nystrom said. "We couldn't get in on the forecheck and, when those guys get a chance to make a play, they're going to make it every single time. It's disappointing on the stage like that to try to show your best and you don't play your best. We're better than that."