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Neal had confidence in Golden Knights from beginning

Forward 'impressed by each and every guy' at start of road to Stanley Cup Final

by Nicholas J. Cotsonika @cotsonika / Columnist

James Neal could have had a bad attitude about going to the Vegas Golden Knights in the NHL Expansion Draft, but he believed in them from the beginning and verbalized it throughout the season more than anyone else in the organization.

Now they have a chance to win what the 30-year-old forward dared talk about by name: the Stanley Cup.

They will play in the Stanley Cup Final starting Monday against the Washington Capitals.

"You obviously wouldn't know what's going to happen," Neal said in a "CONFERENCE CHAMPIONS" hat and T-shirt after Vegas defeated the Winnipeg Jets in the Western Conference Final on Sunday. "You're coming here with an open mind and a positive mind, and I just wanted to look forward and do the best I could here.

"Man, it feels good."

Video: Weekes and Goring break down James Neal's play

Neal was in pain physically and mentally a year ago. He played through a wrist injury for the Nashville Predators in the 2017 Stanley Cup Playoffs, which ended when the Predators lost the Final in six games against the Pittsburgh Penguins. Ten days later, he was claimed by Vegas. He had one season left on his contract.

Can you imagine sacrificing your body to win the Cup for the first time; coming oh-so-close after nine seasons, 632 regular-season games and 80 playoff games in the NHL; leaving a Cup contender for an expansion team; and seeming destined to be sent to yet another team as a rental before the NHL Trade Deadline?

Neal had surgery July 26. Doctors did a bone graft on his wrist and inserted eight screws and a plate. The first week of August, he was just getting out of a cast. When he reported for training camp, he couldn't practice.

But the first day of camp, he pointed out he understood the business and had learned to control what he could. He said he wasn't worried about being traded or becoming an unrestricted free agent. He said he was excited to be a part of this team.

Video: WPG@VGK, Gm3: Neal taps home Haula's sweet pass

The Golden Knights had players like goaltender Marc-Andre Fleury, a three-time Cup winner in Pittsburgh, and forward Jonathan Marchessault, a 30-goal scorer for the Florida Panthers last season, not to mention Neal himself. 

He had scored between 21 and 40 goals in each of his nine NHL seasons. On an off day in camp, when owner Bill Foley said the Golden Knights weren't going to embarrass themselves, Neal told him: "We're going to make the playoffs."

"I didn't play the whole training camp and the whole start of the year," Neal said Sunday. "So I was watching our team. I was watching our players. I was impressed by each and every guy, what they brought to the team. …

"You got an amazing goalie, and you get a chance to win every night. I thought each guy had a different opportunity on our team. You wanted to come in and you wanted to build a culture and a belief in each other that you could win every single day and every single game. We had good players. 

"No matter if some guys were written off or whatever the case may be, whatever gave us a chance to come together, we had the chance to make the most of it."

Video: Looking at the best moves by the Golden Knights

Neal pushed to be ready for the opener. Vegas trailed 1-0 at the Dallas Stars on Oct. 6 when he scored the first goal in Golden Knights history in the third period. Then he scored the first winning goal in their 2-1 victory.

He scored the first overtime goal in Vegas history in a 2-1 win against the Arizona Coyotes on Oct. 7 and two goals in their home opener, a 5-2 victory against the Coyotes, on Oct. 10.

He had five of their nine goals, including their three winners, when they became the first NHL franchise to start 3-0-0.

"I think every guy would say the same thing: There's no reason why we wouldn't be competitive and expect to be competitive and push to win a Stanley Cup like any other team would," Neal said then.

Except no one else was saying that then, at least not publicly, and he was right.

The Golden Knights played so well that general manager George McPhee bought instead of sold at the trade deadline, keeping Neal and fellow pending unrestricted free agent forward David Perron, and acquiring forwards Ryan Reaves and Tomas Tatar.

Neal ended up scoring 25 goals. The Golden Knights went 51-24-7, winning the Pacific Division, finishing fifth in the NHL with 109 points and shattering records for first-year teams.

"We've broken some records and done that," Neal said before the regular-season finale April 7. "But for every guy in that locker room, they're going to say the ultimate goal is to win the Stanley Cup, and it is. What better way to finish the year with what we've done than to win the Stanley Cup?"

Video: Vegas awaits to find out who they will face in SCF

Except no one else was bold enough to use the words "Stanley Cup" then, at least not publicly. Others would only hint at it. Pretty amazing, looking back now.

"We built a belief that we could win right from our first game," Neal said Sunday. "I can't say enough about each guy coming to work, our consistency throughout the whole year. We never looked back. We never came into a game uncertain about what we were going to do. We came in and played hard each and every night, and it just showed. It was no fluke throughout the year. So we're continuing to show people how good we are, and we'll continue to go here and look back on this and be proud of each other."

Can you imagine how badly Neal wants this? Once again, he's with a Cup contender, oh-so-close to winning the Cup for the first time. Once again, he could be on the move after the season. If anyone knows the need to seize the opportunity, it's him. 

"I just try to stay in the moment," Neal said Sunday. "It's hard. It's hard, for sure. You don't want to look too far ahead, but I'm just so excited to be back here. It was so hard last year to lose it. You get that taste of winning, and you just want to come back and you want to win. You want to win. No better group of guys to do it with, and we'll see what happens."


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