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James Neal stepping up game for Predators in playoffs

Forward scored Game 1 winner in overtime against Ducks

by Tim Campbell @TimNHL / Staff Writer

ANAHEIM -- Forward James Neal was happy the Nashville Predators kept on winning, but he knew his game would have to get better.

Neal's improvement during the 2017 Stanley Cup Playoffs reached its high point Friday, when he scored 9:24 into overtime to give Nashville a 3-2 win against the Anaheim Ducks in Game 1 of the Western Conference Final.

Neal had no goals, one assist and eight shots in a first-round sweep of the Chicago Blackhawks. He scored three goals in the six-game second round against the St. Louis Blues, including the 2-1 winner in Game 4.


[RELATED: Complete Western Conference Final coverage]


"I think when you're getting chances and getting looks, that's when you're going to be at your best," Neal said before the conference final. "Maybe in the Chicago series I wasn't getting the shots that I wanted, the looks I wanted.

"And that's when you've got to re-evaluate your game a little bit, make it more simple and get back to maybe straight lines and getting to the net a little more and trying to get a dirty goal.

"I looked at getting the opportunities going in my favor a little more. That was the biggest thing that helped me get back in the mode of scoring."

Neal's refocus led to more looks, more shots (20) and more impact against the Blues. He had six shots on goal Friday.

"I knew I could be better," the 29-year-old said. "I look more at my chances and shots on net than my goals. If I'm getting attempts at the net and quality shots, that's when I'm at my best and like my game. When you have one shot on net, or zero … at the same time, winning kind of puts a blanket over that. As long as the team's winning, that's all that matters.

"But at the same time, I knew there was going to be times when I was counted on to score and help the team win, and that's why I wanted to be at my best. … I wanted to step up and be that guy."

Neal scored Friday on a one-timer off a pass from defenseman P.K. Subban.

Video: NSH@ANA, Gm1: Neal nets Subban's feed for OT win

"Extremely valuable," Josi said. "He's a huge part of our team. He's a pure goal-scorer. He can change the momentum of a game at any second. …

"I feel like he got a lot of chances, even in the first round, and he's a goal-scorer. You know he's going to find the back of the net. He's got a great shot. I think he's been awesome for us. He's been playing really hard for us, playing really well."

Neal scored 23 goals this season and has 238 in 632 NHL regular-season games. Center Mike Fisher is the only member of the Predators with more regular-season goals (276) than Neal, who played for the Dallas Stars and Pittsburgh Penguins before joining Nashville prior to the 2014-15 season.

"When you're a goal scorer and you pride yourself in putting the puck in the net, you're going to go through droughts," Neal said. "And when you do go through those droughts, the media and the people around you want to know why you're not scoring, what's wrong with you, what's different from now to when you were scoring two weeks ago?

"Goal-scorers go in waves, go in streaks, and when you get hot, you feel confident in your game and that every puck can go in the net. That's a great mindset. When you're playing with that mindset, you feel like you're in the zone. Any top athlete in a sport at the top of their game would say they're dialed into that zone and feel like they can do anything.

"It was me getting back to doing things a little bit quicker, a little bit faster, because you can become a little bit complacent when you're scoring and when you're feeling it. You think it's just going to happen and sometimes it doesn't. So then you need to refocus and get back to doing it."

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