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Neal has Golden Knights flying to begin inaugural season

Motivated forward playing major role in helping Vegas become first expansion team to start 3-0-0

by Nicholas J. Cotsonika @cotsonika / NHL.com Columnist

LAS VEGAS -- One off day in training camp, James Neal traveled to Sonoma County, California, and visited the Chalk Hill winery and its proprietor: Vegas Golden Knights owner Bill Foley.

After filming part of a video series called "Corks and Forks" about pairing wine and food, Neal and Foley sat down for dinner. They started talking about the team.

"We should be competitive," Foley told Neal. "We're not going to embarrass ourselves."

"What do you mean?" Neal asked.

"Well, it's an expansion team."

"We're going to make the playoffs."

Foley laughed as he shared that anecdote.

"It's a great attitude," Foley told NHL.com.

 

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It's especially great under the circumstances and all the more remarkable now. The Golden Knights have become the first team in the NHL's 100-year history to start its inaugural season 3-0-0. Neal has scored five of their nine goals, including their three game-winners.

According to the Elias Sports Bureau, since 1967-68, when the League started expanding from the Original Six era, Neal and Quebec Nordiques forward Real Cloutier are the only players to score five goals in the first three games of a team's inaugural season.

Neal is the second player since 1967-68 and first since Philadelphia Flyers forward Brian Propp in 1982-83 to score the winner in each of his team's first three games in a season, acording to Elias.

Video: ARI@VGK: Neal spins and scores from the circle

"I'm shooting the puck," said Neal, who has scored five times on 11 shots for a 45.5 shooting percentage. "Don't jinx me."

Neal could be sour. He has every reason to start slowly.

After the Nashville Predators made the Stanley Cup Final last season, they left the forward exposed in the NHL Expansion Draft to the surprise of many around the NHL and the disappointment of many in Music City.

Predators general manager David Poile wasn't willing to pay Golden Knights GM George McPhee's price to keep him; McPhee was happy to grab a player who has scored at least 20 goals in each of his nine NHL seasons and as many as 40.

Neal was entering the last season of his contract. That meant he could have been heading to a new city and a new team for a few months, only to be moving on again before the 2018 NHL Trade Deadline on Feb. 26 so the Golden Knights could continue to stockpile assets for the future.

On top of that he had hand surgery July 26. Doctors had to do a bone graft on his wrist and insert eight screws and a plate. The first week of August, he was just getting out of a cast. When he reported for camp, he couldn't practice.

But he wasn't sour.

Video: ARI@VGK: Neal nets his second goal on the power play

The first day of camp, he pointed out he was 30 years old, understood the business and had learned to control what he could control. He said he wasn't worried about being traded or becoming an unrestricted free agent. He said he was more excited to be a part of this expansion team. He seemed genuine.

While his teammates practiced and played in the preseason, he rode the bike and skated on his own, eying the regular-season opener at the Dallas Stars on Oct. 6.

"I'm just surprised I was able to play, just having surgery so late in the summer," Neal said. "I wasn't sure if I was going to be ready. I just tried to do everything I could to be ready for that first game. It was definitely something I didn't want to miss, being a part of a new franchise, expansion team, and having that first game at Dallas against a tough team."

He sure hasn't started slowly.

The Golden Knights were trailing 1-0 at Dallas when Neal scored the first goal in their history at 10:27 of the third period, firing a wrist shot from the top of the right circle, and the game-winner at 17:16, dropping to his left knee to catch a pass, flipping the puck over the goaltender and falling down.

He scored 3:46 into overtime at the Arizona Coyotes the next night, grabbing a pass off the end boards, stickhandling and shooting.

Video: VGK@ARI: Neal nets game-winning goal in overtime

He helped pour it on in the emotional home opener against the Coyotes on Tuesday, making it 3-0 by grabbing a rebound, whirling and firing 6:15 into the first, then making it 4-0 by jamming in a puck on the power play at 10:42.

The odds are against the Golden Knights making the Stanley Cup Playoffs. Neal still needs to get his legs. He isn't going to sustain a 45.5 shooting percentage and score every game. He still could end up traded before the deadline.

But why not have a good attitude about it? It's an expansion team, but it's an NHL team stocked with NHL players thanks to more advantageous draft rules. Establishing the sport in a new market is a great experience, especially in place like Las Vegas. The better you play, the better for yourself and your team.

"It's a different type of team from expansion drafts in the past," Neal said. "We're not a young team. We have veterans in our locker room. We have good goaltending. We have skilled forwards that have scored goals in this league and have been successful in this league.

"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. …

"It's a lot of fun. Guys have a lot to prove in this room. Fresh start for a lot of us. Maybe chances for guys that haven't had chances in the past. Lots of good things going on in this team and this locker room. I think if you saw our bench and the way guys reacted after we scored goals and after we came back, you can see that guys are emotional and excited to be here and excited to win games."

NHL.com Staff Writer Lisa Dillman contributed to this story.

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