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Malkin, Neal among leaders as Pens' top line thrives

by Alan Robinson
PITTSBURGH -- The Pittsburgh Penguins' top line of Chris Kunitz, Evgeni Malkin and James Neal has produced more than 40 percent of their goals this season, yet Neal says they can still play better together.
Leading the Penguins out of the worst slump of coach Dan Bylsma's nearly three-year tenure, Malkin and Neal combined for seven goals -- four from Malkin -- during a two-game Florida swing last weekend. Pittsburgh beat Florida 4-1 on Friday to end a six-game slide, then added a 6-3 win at Tampa Bay on Sunday as Malkin scored three times and Neal added two goals.
Abandoning chilly Pittsburgh for sunny Florida in January is almost always a pleasant experience, but perhaps never before have the Penguins enjoyed such a mid-winter getaway. It was exactly what they needed to regain some of the confidence and momentum they had while winning four in a row immediately before the streak began.
The two wins also helped them shake off their four consecutive losses at Consol Energy Center, where they returned to play Carolina on Tuesday night.
As Neal said of going on the road, "Sometimes maybe that's the best thing for you."
"Those two wins were definitely nice," goalie Marc-Andre Fleury said. "It's good to relax a little bit. That was a tough stretch and it's good to finally be out of it. We're looking forward to keeping it going."
It will be much easier for the Penguins to do so if they continue getting Malkin and Neal on the score sheet. Of the Penguins' 134 goals, Neal (24), Malkin (21) and Kunitz (13) have 58 -- or 42 percent of the scoring load. Steve Sullivan, who's also played on the line at times, has 8 goals.
Malkin is only 25, but he's already tied for fourth in Penguins' history (with Rick Kehoe and Alex Kovalev) with eight career hat tricks, or one more than injured teammate Sidney Crosby. Mario Lemieux is the Penguins' leader with 40.
Malkin enjoyed his second five-point game of the season Sunday, scoring all three of his goals in the third period. And the Kunitz-Malkin-Neal line combined for five goals and seven points.
The more that Neal plays alongside Malkin, the better they seem to play together. They were first paired when the Dallas Stars traded Neal to Pittsburgh 11 months ago, and they've been together much of the time since.
"Even when I've got my back to him, I kind of know where he's going," Neal said. "You just try to read what he's going to do. He always likes coming through the middle with speed, so as long as you put it in his area, he's going to pick up the puck. Just little things like that. … And I'll get in position to shoot, and he'll give it right back to me."
Despite recently going six games without a goal, Malkin has scored in four of his last five. With 51 points, Malkin went into Tuesday's NHL schedule only one point behind NHL leader Henrik Sedin of Vancouver -- despite playing in nine fewer games than Sedin.
Neal is tied with Jonathan Toews of Chicago and Phil Kessel of Toronto with 24 goals, six behind NHL leader Steven Stamkos of Tampa Bay.
"I think we're trying to find our stride here and become a good line," Neal said. "He (Malkin) obviously likes having the puck. Hopefully I draw a few guys off him and then he gets some more space. He's so skilled with the puck, so strong, he's a fun guy to play with."
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