With Pascal Dupuis out of the lineup with an ACL injury, James Neal received a look on the top line with Chris Kunitz and Sidney Crosby.
Neal may get an extended stay on that line if he keeps playing the way he did against the Columbus Blue Jackets on Sunday night at Nationwide Arena.
Neal recorded his fourth-career hat trick and added two assists for a career-high five-point night in Pittsburgh¹s 5-3 victory. Neal has 14 goals and 30 points in 21 games this season.
"I'm not sure why I thought James would have a fantastic year," head coach Dan Bylsma said. "Tonight he got a few opportunities and he didn't miss."
In fact, the top line combined for all five of the Penguins' goals and totaled 11 points (Neal, 3G-2A; Crosby, 1G-2A; Kunitz, 1G-2A) on the night. Neal, who is used to playing with injured center Evgeni Malkin, is finding some instant chemistry with his new mates.
"It's funny. When a guy like 'Geno' goes down you get to play with 'Sid,'" Neal said. "It's pretty special. I'm trying to find some chemistry with both of them. Sid made an unbelievable pass for my second one and found 'Kuni' for the game-winner. I can't say enough about him. He's a special guy, special player. It's been fun."
The Penguins didn't play their best game at 5-on-5. But they certainly won the special teams battle and, in doing so, the game.
The Penguins, who have the NHL's top-ranked power play with a 25.7-percent success rate, notched three man-advantage tallies. Those three scores ended up being the difference in the game.
"When we got on the PP we capitalized," Neal said. "You need your power play to step up in games, ultimately pull ahead and win those type of games.
"Special teams will win you games. You see that tonight."
The Blue Jackets, conversely, came up empty on three power-play opportunities.
"I don't think it was just the three goals or the power play," Bylsma said. "The PK had to come up big, which we did. It's been a calling card. We win the special teams tonight and get (starting goaltender) Jeff Zatkoff another win." It was Zatkoff's seventh straight.
Penguins defenseman Rob Scuderi returned to the lineup for the first time since Oct. 26, a stretch of 29-games missed. As expected, there was a lot of rust to shake off.
"I felt better as the game went on, certainly rusty," Scuderi said. "Condition-wise and skating is not a problem. It's reading the play, when to go to the right spot, where you're supposed to be. It takes time to come back.
"I've been out for two months and I've got to get my bearings right again."
Scuderi logged 18:01 minutes of ice time. He also noted that he had no problems or reservations with his ankle, which required surgery two months ago.
"That stuff's not a problem," he said of his ankle. "It's just feeling awkward out there and out of position at times. You're double thinking and maybe doing too much thinking. I just need a little more time, to be put in those situations more and more and you'll feel more comfortable."
Author: Sam Kasan