PITTSBURGH -- Poor James Neal. The winger lost his world-class former scoring champion center to injury.
The replacement? A world-class former scoring champion center.
The Pittsburgh Penguins will be without Evgeni Malkin for Sunday night's game against the Tampa Bay Lightning due to an upper-body injury. As a result, Penguins coach Dan Bylsma bumped Neal, who is tied for the National Hockey League lead in goals, up onto a line with Sidney Crosby.
"James is an elite guy at getting open and finding areas, and that doesn't change who the centerman is," Bylsma said. "He's going to do that and that's what he's going to be able to do playing next to Sidney Crosby or Evgeni Malkin."
Neal will begin Sunday's game on Crosby's right wing, with Chris Kunitz in his customary spot to Crosby's left.
Right wing Pascal Dupuis was moved to the former Malkin line with rookie Beau Bennett. Brandon Sutter is now centering that unit.
When Neal was acquired via trade from the Dallas Stars two years ago, it was with the intention that he would be Crosby's go-to winger for years to come. Partially because Crosby missed so much time due to injury -- and because Neal and Malkin clicked so well together -- that never materialized.
Now, at least temporarily, the time for a Crosby-Neal partnership has come.
"Little things will change because 'Geno' and Sid are obviously different players," Neal said. "But I try to the same things -- find those open areas to shoot the puck. Sid's so good in the offensive zone at making plays and creating space. It's a good opportunity, and I'm looking forward to the chance to play with him."
Neal had 40 goals last season, and he has 12 in 18 games this season. Crosby, second in the NHL in assists with 18, has 404 assists in 452 career games. He won the 2006-07 Art Ross and Hart trophies, has four 100-point seasons and was leading the League in goals, assists and points in January 2011 before missing the remainder of the season due to injury.
A two-time Art Ross winner, Malkin was injured late in Friday's game against the Florida Panthers. It is not known when he will be cleared to return.
"I think Nealer doesn't really want the puck until he gets over the blue line, so it works out pretty good," Crosby said, cracking a smile. "He gives it to Geno and lets Geno work the neutral zone, and I think if anything I like to have it coming through the neutral zone, too, so we're pretty similar that way, me and Geno.
"I'm probably a little more straight-line; I'm sure that's a little different attack. Geno probably goes east-west a little more, and I'm probably a little more straight-line. That's nothing that will take too much time to adjust to. It's something that should be pretty easy."
Although Crosby and Neal have never spent extended time as linemates, there have been occasions in which they take shifts together. Bylsma commonly finds opportunities during games to unite his "Big Three" of Malkin, Crosby and Neal -- and the trio shares the ice on the Penguins' top power play unit.
So it's not as if Crosby is entirely unfamiliar with Neal's game. Crosby doesn't intend to drastically alter the way he plays because of the talented new linemate.
"No, I probably look to pass a little more than I do shoot," Crosby said. "It's just something naturally that I do, but I don't want to think about it too much and pass up shots. I'll still get shots, but I know that James is great at finding those seams and finding those open areas so I'll make sure that I try to look for him."