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Now settled, Pittsburgh's Neal scoring again

by Alan Robinson
PITTSBURGH -- Pittsburgh Penguins forward James Neal won't wonder again why some players - even those with a history of producing - struggle after being dealt to a contending team at the trading deadline.

Last season, he was one of those players.

With the injured Sidney Crosby and Evgeni Malkin out of the lineup and the Penguins' scoring average down a goal per game from when their stars were playing, they acquired Neal and his reliable scoring Feb. 21 from the Dallas Stars.

Only that scoring touch disappeared when he left the Stars to join a team loaded with injured stars. Pressing to produce for a team that was winning even without Crosby and Malkin, Neal was held to a single goal in 20 regular-season games. He also had only one in Pittsburgh's seven-game Eastern Conference playoff loss to the Tampa Bay Lightning.

An unfamiliarity with a new city, new teammates and a new system, and perhaps some loneliness associated with his family being back home in Dallas, admittedly affected Neal's game.

"I underestimated it," Neal said Saturday before the Penguins played the Buffalo Sabres at Consol Energy Center. "I keep saying you get one phone call in your life that turns your life upside down within seconds. You're on a plane and in a whole city, with new teammates, and it's a huge change."

No wonder Neal welcomed a new start this season.

"I came in fresh, a better mindset and everything was easier with the living situation," said Neal, who relocated to Pittsburgh during the offseason. "It was just a lot more of a comfortable feeling coming to the rink. Now, knowing all of your teammates and really being a part of the Penguins is definitely better."

The stats sheet agrees with him. Playing mostly on a line with Malkin and Steve Sullivan, Neal had four goals and an assist in Pittsburgh's first five games, including two goals during a 3-2 overtime loss Thursday to the Washington Capitals.

"When Geno, Sully and Neal are on the ice together, they enjoy every single shift and they create so many chances and plays," defenseman Zbynek Michalek said. "It can be a dangerous line definitely."

Malkin won't play against the Sabres because of right knee soreness - he will be missing his third game in the Penguins' last four - but Buffalo coach Lindy Ruff said playing the Penguins without their stars is no treat. The Sabres lost to Pittsburgh twice last season after Crosby sustained a concussion the first week of January.

"They're very dangerous. They're a hard-working, competitive team and they're getting goal scoring from different areas that makes them dangerous," Ruff said. "In our case, we know we've got to take care of our part. We know what to bring and we've got to be ready to outplay them."

The Sabres are looking to bounce back after losing their home opener to the Carolina Hurricanes 4-3 on Friday night after permitting two shorthanded goals. They began the season with a pair of victories in the 2011 Compuware NHL Premiere in Europe, beating the Los Angeles Kings in Berlin and the Anaheim Ducks in Helsinki.

"I thought we played a really good two games overseas, but we got away from our game (against Carolina). I think we got caught up a little bit in the hype of home ice, the home opener," Ruff said. "We've talked about that and now it's get back to work and play our game."

Neal is expected to move onto the Crosby line once the Penguins' captain returns; Crosby skated on a line with Neal and Sullivan during the morning skate but still has not been cleared medically to play in games.

"Obviously it would be great  to play with Sid, but the way we're playing with Geno, who knows what will happen?" Neal said. "As long as the team is doing well and I'm contributing, things are going great."
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