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Neal's hat trick sparks Penguins in season finale

by Chris Adamski /

PITTSBURGH -- James Neal debuted a new tinted visor for his first game back after missing three weeks because of a concussion. He didn't commit to wearing it for the long-term, though.

"We'll see if I like it," Neal said after Friday's practice.

Safe to say Neal liked the darkened view of things he saw Saturday.

Neal had his third career hat trick and added an assist to tie a career high for points and the Pittsburgh Penguins wrapped up their regular season with an 8-3 win against the Carolina Hurricanes on Saturday at Consol Energy Center.

"We saw him get opportunities that maybe only James Neal can bury like he did today," Penguins coach Dan Bylsma said of the reigning 40-goal scorer. "You play some games without the guy and without the shot, and he steps right in and you realize how dangerous he is. ... I'm not sure it could have been a better outing for him."

Jussi Jokinen scored twice against the team that waived and then traded him over the past six weeks and Evgeni Malkin had a goal and two assists for the Penguins, who a week ago clinched the Eastern Conference's No. 1 seed for the Stanley Cup Playoffs.

Brenden Morrow scored and added an assist during the Penguins' five-goal third period. Chris Kunitz had two assists for Pittsburgh (36-12), which completed the season by avoiding its first three-game losing streak.

"The last couple games weren't very good and the second period was pretty rotten, too," Morrow said. "But we had a big third, so we have to keep riding that out. Our lineup, we're starting to get healthy at the right time. Guys contributed in a lot of ways. We're all feeling pretty good."

Kevin Westgarth scored his first two goals of the season and Tuomo Ruutu also scored for Carolina, which finished the season in 13th place in the Eastern Conference standings.

Eric Staal had two assists and Jordan Staal had one assist in his first game back in Pittsburgh since being traded from the Penguins to the Hurricanes last summer.

Neal scored twice in a span of 2:38 within the first 4 1/2 minutes of the third period, and when Morrow added his 12th of the season -- and sixth in 15 games with Pittsburgh -- 70 seconds later, the Penguins had blown open what was a tie game after two periods.

"When you play a good team like Pittsburgh and you're physically fatigued, they're going to make you pay," Hurricanes coach Kirk Muller said. "And they capitalized in the third and we just couldn't sustain that tempo."

Neal, who missed eight games after absorbing a reverse elbow to the face from New York Rangers defenseman Michael Del Zotto on April 5, had made it 2-0 when he beat Hurricanes goalie Justin Peters with a wrist shot from the slot early in the second period.

Neal's 20th of the season proved to be the winner 1:36 into the third period off an assist from Malkin while on the power play. The Carolina penalty came on a Jared Staal goaltender-interference penalty that wiped out a goal that would have given the Hurricanes the lead.

Neal completed his first hat trick since March 20, 2012, by one-timing a feed from Malkin on a 2-on-1 with 15:46 left in regulation.

"I felt I was ready and it was great to get out there and get a game in before playoffs," said Neal, who finished with a career low-tying 21 goals -- albeit in 40 games.

"We just wanted to play the right way. There's definitely some areas we will clean up come Wednesday, but overall we did a good job this season and we'll put that behind us and focus on these playoffs."

Malkin's goal, his ninth, came on the power play to open the scoring in the first period.

After Matt Cooke scored his eighth of the season with 4:17 left, Penguins fans broke out into a "We want the Cup" chant.

During the first extended stoppage of the game, that same 278th consecutive Penguins home sellout crowd gave a standing ovation to a tribute video for Jordan Staal, who rose to his feet, acknowledged the fans and applauded back at them.

Staal was dealt for Brandon Sutter, a first-round pick and defense prospect Brian Dumoulin during the NHL Draft in Pittsburgh last June. Staal had spent the first six years of his NHL career with the Penguins, but turned down a lucrative contract extension offer from the team, indicating a desire to join brother Eric in Raleigh.

"It was nice," Jordan Staal said of the fan appreciation. "The fans here, they're true fans. They know the game of hockey and they appreciate guys coming (back) in. I've seen Max (Talbot) and all those guys coming in through here, and it was nice to get that same feeling. I really do appreciate it."

Jared Staal was a minus-2 in his second career game for Carolina.

Also returning to the Pittsburgh lineup was defenseman Paul Martin, who had missed 12 games because of a broken bone in his hand. Martin had an assist in 23:31 of ice time.

Jokinen scored his second of the game at 19:11 of the third to give the Penguins a season-high for goals.

Westgarth, whose tie to Pittsburgh is being married to former Steelers coach Bill Cowher's daughter, entered the second period with one career goal, but scored twice in a span of 5:21. His other goal came Nov. 23, 2011, for the Los Angeles Kings against the Dallas Stars.

Ruutu has all four of his goals over the final six games of the season. He also scored Thursday in the Hurricanes' home finale.

The Penguins almost certainly will open up the first round of the playoffs at home Wednesday against either the Ottawa Senators or New York Islanders. If Ottawa loses to the Boston Bruins in regulation Sunday, the Senators will be the No. 8 seed. If they earn a point, the Islanders are Pittsburgh-bound next week.

"We've shown we can win in a lot of different ways," Bylsma said. "Thirty-six wins has put us in a spot where we want to be going into the playoffs, put us in a situation where we have the No. 1 seed and have home ice advantage in round one.

"Now we can erase the 36 wins and four wins is what we're focused on right now, and we'll look to that starting Sunday."

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