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Neal returns to practice for Flames

Forward has missed 14 games with upper-body injury

by Aaron Vickers / NHL.com Correspondent

CALGARY -- James Neal, who has missed 14 games because of an upper-body injury, returned to practice Monday for the Calgary Flames.

The forward could return to the lineup as early as Thursday against the Ottawa Senators (9 p.m. ET; RDS2, SNW, TSN5, NHL.TV). 

The Flames became the first team from the Western Conference to clinch a berth in the 2019 Stanley Cup Playoffs on Sunday.

 

[RELATED: Flames clinch playoff berth]

 

"I'm getting excited," said Neal, who sustained the injury Feb. 14 against the Florida Panthers. "You never want to be hurt, but you use that time to be ready for playoffs. The season is just starting for us now. We did a great job all year to put ourselves in a position to make the playoffs. There's nothing better than playoff hockey and winning in the playoffs. That's what I want to do. That's why I'm here. I'm looking forward to it."

Neal, who signed a five-year, $28.75 million contract (average annual value $5.75 million) with the Flames on July 2, has advanced to the Stanley Cup Final in each of the past two seasons.

He played with the Nashville Predators in the 2017 Final, won by the Pittsburgh Penguins in six games, and with the Golden Knights in the 2018 Final, won by the Washington Capitals in five games.

"He's obviously a guy who has had real good success in the playoffs and success the past couple of years going to back-to-back Finals," Calgary forward Matthew Tkachuk said. "To have him in this stretch for us is critical. He knows what it takes to win in playoff games.

"We need that."

The Flames followed the Tampa Bay Lightning from the Eastern Conference as the first two teams to have secured a playoff berth when the Minnesota Wild lost 3-2 in overtime to the New York Islanders on Sunday.

Video: DET@CGY: Neal redirects shot past Howard for PPG

It is the second time in the past three seasons the Flames have qualified for the playoffs, and third in the past 10 seasons.

"It's important, but I think it's something that we realized the past couple weeks that we've put ourselves in a position to do that," Tkachuk said. "It's pretty cool that we're the first team in the West to do it. Now we have a spot clinched. Now we keep rolling from here and try to go after this division.

"We gave ourselves a chance the last 10 games to fight for home ice in the playoffs. It's a great position that we're in right now."

Calgary leads the San Jose Sharks by one point for first in the Western Conference and Pacific Division. 

Neal has 15 points (five goals, 10 assists) in 55 games this season. 

He has 55 points (31 goals, 24 assists) in 100 career Stanley Cup Playoff games with Pittsburgh, Nashville and Vegas and is eager to join in on the chase for home ice in the postseason.

"The guys did a great job all year to put ourselves in this position," Neal said. "We'll finish off the year strong. We've gone through the ups and downs and I think we've handled them really good throughout the year. I like the way we've bounced back. I like the way our team is built.

"I'm just excited to get playoff hockey going here."

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