says everything about his game this season is exactly the same as it was last season. He insists that neither his speed down the wing nor the way he's trying to score goals has changed one iota.
Similarly, Pittsburgh coach Dan Bylsma
suggests the player he sees wearing No. 18 for the Penguins this season reminds him of the same guy who wore the same number for the same team in a combined 27 regular-season and playoff games last season.
"He's skating, he's good on pucks, he's hunting pucks down, he's physical, good around the net and he's getting pucks to go to the cage," Bylsma said. "Those are things he did previously. He just didn't have them go in for him (last season)."
Ah ha. Jackpot.
Neal scored 2 goals in 27 games as a Penguin last season. He has 9 goals in 12 games this season.
Left Wing - PIT
GOALS: 9 | ASST: 1 | PTS: 10
SOG: 50 | +/-: -3
How does he explain the discrepancy? Simple logic, really.
"I'm not living in a hotel beside the rink," Neal told NHL.com recently. "I have made Pittsburgh a home and that definitely leads over to on the ice. When you have your living arrangements sorted out and you're happy, that's when you're having fun."
There aren't too many hockey players having more fun than Neal nowadays. He's comfortable in Pittsburgh, the puck is going in for him, and the team is winning even though Evgeni Malkin
has missed seven games and Sidney Crosby
hasn't dressed yet.
Neal, though, brushes off his early-season success as something that shouldn't be a surprise in the slightest.
"It's par for the course," was the phrase he used.
To understand what he means, remember that Neal was a three-time 20-plus goal guy in Dallas before getting shipped to Pittsburgh on Feb. 21. He scored 24 as a rookie, 27 in his second season and had 21 in 59 games before the trade last season.
Neal expects to score goals. He's paid handsomely ($3.5 million this season) to do so.
And now that he's 24 years old and in his fourth NHL season, he expects to score more than ever.
"You always want to take it to the next level," Neal said. "The older you get, the more mature you get, the better you feel and the more comfortable you feel. I scored 27 my second year after 24 my first year, so you always want to go up. But last year I went down (to 22). I want to prove myself again this year. I wanted to come out hard and I've done that."
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Neal did so once again with the help of the Gary Roberts
’ summer training program, which is also followed by fellow goal scorers Steven Stamkos
and Jeff Skinner
, among others.
Bylsma also believes Neal's strong start has a lot to do with the pressure being off.
You'd think without Crosby and only a semi-healthy Malkin that a player like Neal would be under twice as much pressure to produce, because the Penguins need guys with his ability to provide the offense in the absence of their superstars. However, the situation was exactly the same last season, when Neal came in as the savior to the beleaguered Penguins offense.
He struggled to handle the pressure on top of the culture shock.
"I know for James, walking in our city and getting recognized as James Neal
, a guy that would score for us, added that pressure," Bylsma said. "He felt that. I think he pushed for that. He still played a lot of good hockey for us. He played fast, physical and was good around the net, but just didn't bury the puck."
"He came back confident and a lot of those other things went away," Bylsma continued. "He had familiarity with the people. And starting the season I don't think he thought, 'I have to score for this team to be successful.' He was a guy coming in to be on the Pittsburgh Penguins
, not as a guy who was counted on only to score goals.
"He's become really confident in his surroundings, confident in his teammates and what we're doing."
Penguins goalie Marc-Andre Fleury
said it was impossible not to notice Neal's confidence the first day of training camp.
"Everybody knew that he was about to do it," Fleury told NHL.com. "Since camp he's been on fire, working hard, and he has that great shot and great speed on the ice. He has gotten some huge goals for us and we've gotten some wins because of that."
Neal said scoring in the Penguins' season-opener was a huge monkey off his back. He fooled Roberto Luongo
with a shot from below the goal line to give Pittsburgh a 1-0 lead. The Penguins went on to a 4-3 shootout victory.
"That takes the weight off your shoulders and you're able to just focus on hockey and just play instead of trying to get that one goal," Neal said. "I am still shooting the puck and skating, so it's not a huge difference. But it's a comfort thing and a confidence, too."
Neal didn’t have either after the trade last season. That's the difference.
Follow Dan Rosen on Twitter at: @drosennhl