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Neal making presence felt for Golden Knights against Sharks in playoffs

Veteran forward providing leadership, calming influence for Vegas during postseason run

by Lisa Dillman @reallisa / NHL.com Staff Writer

SAN JOSE -- Most descriptions of Gerard Gallant as a player usually include the term "old school" to describe his approach, and maybe that's why the coach of the Vegas Golden Knights admires the work of forward James Neal.

Neal, 30, is a bit of a throwback. Selected from the Nashville Predators in the 2017 NHL Expansion Draft, he had offseason wrist surgery.

"To be honest with you, we weren't expecting him for game No. 1 (of the regular season)," Gallant said Tuesday. "Two days before that, he said, 'I'll be fine, don't listen to the trainers.' The next thing I know, he's in our lineup. He was still sore and he was still fighting through it, but he came in and played and he played unbelievable hockey. He scored all those big goals early. But that's him.

"They call him the 'Real Deal James Neal' and that's what he is. He really is that guy -- he comes up big for us. He's playing hard and he's playing a big man's game. We're really happy with the way he's playing."

 

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Vegas leads the San Jose Sharks 2-1 in the Western Conference Second Round. Game 4 of the best-of-7 series is here Wednesday (10 p.m. ET; NBCSN, CBC, TVAS).

Neal's contributions to the Golden Knights' 4-3 overtime win in Game 3 on Monday were easy to overlook, given how well goaltender Marc-Andre Fleury (39 saves) played and the two plays made by center William Karlsson -- one to set up forward Reilly Smith for the third goal, the other Karlsson's goal in overtime.

But it was Neal who made the pass that sprung Karlsson down the right side, hesitating just long enough for Karlsson to get up to full speed and leave the Sharks defense flat-footed. Rather than focus on his contribution to the play, Neal noted how the goal doesn't happen unless Karlsson makes a brilliant shot.

The Golden Knights blew a two-goal lead in regulation, which was what Neal emphasized in the preparation for Game 4. Sharks forward Tomas Hertl forced overtime with a power move from behind the Golden Knights net that got the puck in front and eventually found its way back onto his stick for a tap-in from close range with less than two minutes remaining in the third period.

Video: VGK@SJS, Gm3: Neal sets up Miller for PPG

"We need to be harder at the end there, myself included," Neal said. "With 1:30 left, you've got to be hard on those plays, get the pucks out, get blocks. You can't let them walk out from behind the net like that."

Like they have all season, the Golden Knights showed great resiliency in pulling out the victory. Experience, Neal said, teaches you to quickly forget about a goal like Hertl's.

"That's game to game, and play to play, you've got to let things go, but that's hard to do, for sure," Neal said. "That's when experience comes in. You learn from your mistakes and you try to go out there and win a hockey game. Now [the Sharks are] going to be hungrier again. 

"It just goes back and forth for sure. ... A couple of little plays that came back to bite us at the end, and I think we'll learn from that and get better."

Gallant acknowledged Neal's presence has had a trickle-down effect throughout the lineup.

"He's huge for our group," Gallant said. "James is a guy … who was outstanding the first 10 games for us. He was scoring big goals. Now, he's doing the same thing in the playoffs. He's a clutch guy, he's an experienced guy."

Video: SJS@VGK, Gm1: Neal tucks home PPG to pad lead in 3rd

Neal, who had 25 goals during the regular season, scored six in his first four Stanley Cup Playoff games, including the game-winner in each of Vegas' first three wins. 

Neal is well ahead of his playoff pace from a year ago with the Predators. After seven games, he has six points (two goals, four assists). He had two points (one goal, one assist) through that many playoff games in 2017.

"He's been great for us all year," Fleury said. "A great leader in the room and has been around for a long time. He's hockey smart -- knows where to go and what to do and helps other guys understand." 

Many of the Golden Knights took Tuesday off, with a few players skating on their own, opting for rest prior to Game 4.  

Gallant is not known for chasing matchups and as the visiting coach, would have a hard time doing so. But he was intrigued by a strategy deployed by Sharks coach Peter DeBoer in the latter stages of Game 3, when DeBoer loaded up one line with his three best forwards -- Logan Couture, Joe Pavelski and Evander Kane, a formidable group. 

"It's good if they don't score," Gallant said joking. "That's a lot of talent, there's no doubt. I guess you could look at our team and say well, we've got the Karlsson line (with Jonathan Marchessault and Smith) that's rolling pretty good. You can't worry about what the other coach is doing. You know what they're trying to do."

***

 

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