The Pittsburgh Penguins
traded for forward James Neal
last season mostly to add a reliable goal scorer to star Sidney Crosby
As it turns out, it is Neal's ability to score without Crosby in the lineup that is proving to be a major asset.
As the Penguins began this season under a cloud of uncertainty about when Crosby would return from a concussion that had sidelined him since early January, Neal carried them by scoring 9 goals in the first 13 games. Even without the NHL's marquee player, the Penguins went 8-3-2.
That stretch set the tone for a season in which coach Dan Bylsma
has coaxed an admirable amount of production out of numerous players whose roles have greatly expanded due to injuries to, at various stages, Crosby, Evgeni Malkin
, Jordan Staal
, Tyler Kennedy
, Kris Letang
, Brooks Orpik
, Zbynek Michalek
, Richard Park
and Ben Lovejoy
For the ever-creative Bylsma, nearly every game is proving to be a Night at the Improv.
Left Wing - PIT
GOALS: 17 | ASST: 11 | PTS: 28
SOG: 125 | +/-: 0
Neal, who wound up playing on Malkin's line rather than Crosby's, had 2 goals in the eight games Crosby played after No. 87 returned to the lineup on Nov. 21. But when Crosby unexpectedly left the lineup last week due to a recurring case of post-concussion symptoms, Neal once again carried the offense with 3 goals in two games.
Neal said it's merely a coincidence that he has scored in flurries when Crosby has been out. He had 3 goals in the five games immediately before Crosby came back.
"You can't put an assumption on that," Neal said Tuesday. "Sid's unbelievable and it's fun to play with him in the lineup and fun to be part of that. It's nothing that I try to do different (when Crosby is out). It's hard to say."
Even if it is easy for the Penguins to understand what Neal means to them.
A disappointment after he scored just once in 20 regular-season games after joining them late last season, Neal is tied with Malkin for the team scoring lead with 17 goals and 11 assists for 28 points. Malkin has 10 goals and 18 assists.
Now Neal gets to go against a very familiar opponent.
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While he played for Dallas, Neal was involved in numerous key games against the Red Wings, who meet the Penguins on Tuesday in their only matchup this season. Neal has 3 goals and 5 assists in 12 career games against Detroit.
"You always get up for a game against the Red Wings," Neal said. "They're always good. It's fun playing against them."
Penguins coach Dan Bylsma
, who grew up in Michigan, said there's a lot to like about a Red Wings team that has won nine of 11.
"Detroit Red Wings
? I love to talk about them," Bylsma said. "Their power play's a strong 20 percent, right back up at being the dangerous level they always are. The line of (Johan) Franzen, (Pavel) Datsyuk and (Todd) Bertuzzi is playing extremely well right now. … We're expecting a tough team to play against defensively. They don't give up a lot, but (they're) also a team that's going to come at you pretty hard with speed and skill and a dangerous power play."
The Red Wings and Penguins developed quite a rivalry while meeting in the Stanley Cup Final in 2008 and 2009. The Red Wings won in six games in 2008; the Penguins won Game 7 in Detroit in 2009.
Since then, the infrequent games between the two franchises have taken on a playoff-like feel.
"It's not like the Flyers where no one likes anyone," Penguins goalie Marc-Andre Fleury
said. "There is respect on both sides. It's tough to get there (to the Stanley Cup Final). We battled each other twice. It's still fun, (with) intense games."
But only one of them this season. If the Red Wings and Penguins are to meet again, it won't be until the Stanley Cup Final. That's a scenario that each franchise would willingly accept.