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Neal among key Penguins left off Canadian team

by Kevin Woodley

VANCOUVER – As the media gathered five and six deep around the lockers of Pittsburgh Penguins captain Sidney Crosby and linemate Chris Kunitz to talk about making Canada's team for the 2014 Sochi Olympics, James Neal sat quietly a couple of stalls away.

As happy as Neal was for his teammates, it was hard to match their smiles after being left off the Canadian roster.

"You have to keep your head up, and try to keep a smile on your face but it is tough," Neal said. "It's disappointing, you wanted to be part of that team so bad and you only get so many chances. It's the chance of a lifetime to play for Team Canada at the Olympics."

Neal's chances dwindled after missing 15 games with an early injury and another five in early December because of a suspension. But with 34 points in 24 games, the Penguins sniper's 1.42 points-per-game average is second only to Crosby (1.43) in the entire NHL.

You could argue the biggest problem for Neal is he plays with Evgeni Malkin, who was named to Russia's Olympic Team on Tuesday, while Kunitz was rewarded for his chemistry on Crosby's line.

"I can't look at it like that," Neal said. "Any time you are picking Team Canada, no matter what happens there are going to be great players left off. They are all tough decision it's an unbelievable team and a lot of deserving guys and I couldn't be happier for Sid and Kunitz."

There were a lot of mixed emotions in the Pittsburgh locker room.

While 19-year-old rookie defenseman Olli Maatta and forward Jussi Jokinen were on the Finnish team announced Tuesday, and Paul Martin and Brooks Orpik both made the U.S. team unveiled on Jan. 1, goalie Marc-Andre Fleury and All Star defenseman Kris Letang joined Neal as notable omissions from Canada's team.

Fleury was not even among the five goalies invited to the Canadian orientation camp in the fall, but Letang did take part in the camp prior to a season that has been derailed by injuries early and in mid-December.

"It's disappointing, but it's been a tough year for me," said Letang, who has played 25 games after returning Sunday against the Winnipeg Jets. "There's always another year, another Olympics."

Fleury, who doesn't speak to the media on game days, was at the 2010 Vancouver Olympics as the third-string goalie behind original No. 1 Martin Brodeur and backup Roberto Luongo, who took over the starting job, backstopped Canada to gold and was named to the team for the Sochi Games on Tuesday.

The consensus then was Fleury, who was coming off a Stanley Cup championship, was being groomed for a bigger role the next time around. But consecutive playoff meltdowns couldn't be undone by a slightly revamped style and good start to this season, and Fleury was left off Team Canada despite leading the NHL with 24 wins.

"I feel disappointment for Marc-Andre and James and Kris," coach Dan Bylsma said. "And excitement for everyone else."

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