TAMPA, Fla. – Finally.
finally broke through for his first playoff goal – and in quite the dramatic fashion.
Neal’s tally at the 3:38 mark of the second overtime period lifted the Penguins to a 3-2 victory and commanding 3-1 series lead with a two-game sweep of the Lightning at St. Pete Times Forum in Tampa Bay.
“It’s been a long time,” Neal said in the locker room following the game. “I’ve had a lot of chances and a lot of shots on net and hadn’t been able to find a way (to score). As long as you keep shooting one will find its way into the back of the net. No better time than tonight.”
“The fans like their overtime heroes. He’s one tonight and it’s well deserved,” center Mark Letestu said. “He’s played hard for a long time.”
And now Neal can breathe a sigh of relief with that worry out of his mind. So much so that he was even joking with reporters following the contest.
“I didn’t want to score unless it was in double overtime,” he said with a grin. “I was waiting.”RELATED: Aftermath: Penguins 3, Lightning 2 (2 OT) >>
Neal nearly became the hero seconds before he became, well, the hero. After an offensive zone faceoff win by Jordan Staal
, Neal had an opportunity right in front of the net. His shot was stopped by Lightning goalie Dwayne Roloson.
But Neal kept working on the play and found the puck along the far wall, middle circle. He sent a blind, turning bullet on that net and the puck whistled past Roloson for the game-ender.
“I got a shot early off the draw. I went around and it came back to me,” Neal said. “I was just thinking shoot. The more pucks you get on net, it didn’t matter the angle, one would pop out or find a way in. I was lucky to get one.”
“He’s dangerous from anywhere,” Letestu said. “You saw it on that play. It was a shot in a non-scoring zone. He just shot it hard. It was a great shot. That’s why we got him. He’s a dangerous scorer and hopefully this is the one that gets him going.”
Neal, who has been a 20-goal scorer in each of his first three campaigns, had scored one goal for the Penguins in 20 regular-season games since being acquired in February. The third-year forward had been scoreless in the first three postseason games, but the number of goals scored is only half of the story.
Neal has been a force all over the ice during the playoffs. He’s been physical, a menace in the backcheck, a pain around the net and has had a number of great opportunities. The only thing missing was a goal…until now.
“People complain about him not scoring, but he does a lot of other things besides scoring,” defenseman Brooks Orpik
said. “When you’re in slumps you have to make sure you’re contributing in other ways. He’s been doing that. I think everybody is really happy to see him get one.”
And with the victory, the Penguins’ race to four has become a race to one.RELATED: Pens-Bolts Game 4: In-Game Blog >>
“The guys battled all night with the PK and (Marc-Andre) Fleury in net. Everyone did a great job,” Neal said. “Both teams were pushing. We knew how big of a goal it would be to make it 3-1 (in the series). If they score and it’s 2-2 going back into our barn then it’s a totally different series. It’s a big one to pull out.”
And thanks to Neal’s winner, the Penguins indeed pulled it out.
“James has had plenty of good opportunities in and around the net,” head coach Dan Bylsma said. “He’s got a wicked shot. He got a couple opportunities again tonight. He threw a laser at the net. It wasn’t a great angle, but we talk about that type of mentality in overtime, getting pucks to the net. Neal gets his first playoff goal and it’s a big one.”