After Monday’s trade brought James Neal
and Matt Niskanen
to Pittsburgh, it only took two days for the newest additions to see some game action at CONSOL Energy Center.
The two players made their powder blue debut Wednesday night in a 3-2 overtime loss to San Jose.
“It was great,” Neal said of his first game. “It was a tough way to lose there, but I felt way better as the game went on.”
Earlier in the day, head coach Dan Bylsma touted the 6-foot-2 Neal’s physical presence.
“He plays a physical offensive zone game,” Bylsma said. “He likes to play there, and we want him to play there.”
When it was announced that Neal would start the game alongside Jordan Staal
and Pascal Dupuis
, the crowd gave Neal the loudest roar of the introductions.
Neal thanked his new fan base by throwing a big hit behind Sharks goalie Antti Niemi, using that physical presence. By the end of his second shift, Neal already created two great scoring chances by crashing the crease on rebounds.
“You want to come in and you want to be physical,” Neal said. “It just opens up more ice for you. It was a tough two days, and I was a little sluggish early. But I started finding my legs.”
In the third period, Neal used his body to weave around Sharks defenders and snap a powerful wrist shot at Niemi. Though Niemi stopped the puck with his right shoulder, Neal made a nice first impression in the Steel City.
“You saw flashes of James Neal
’s game in the offensive zone,” Bylsma said. “The shot he had, and he showed he can skate as well. He has a big body and had a couple big hits on the forecheck.”
Neal finished with two shots and three hits through 20:48 of ice time.
“For the most part it went pretty well, systems-wise,” Niskanen said. “There are a lot of good players here. When they do a lot of the details right, the little things, then that makes it easier to play.”
He got in the way of several Sharks shots, tallying three blocks in the game through 19:33 of ice time. He also fired three shots at Niemi.
When Brooks Orpik
left the game in the first period after blocking a powerful shot by Patrick Marleau on a penalty kill, the rest of the defensive unit stepped up and filled in for Orpik. Niskanen started the second period with Kris Letang
, then spent the rest of the game rotating with the Penguins’ D-men.
“I though Matt played a real good game,” Bylsma said. “He played a real solid game back there, put in that situation playing extra minutes. He looked confident making plays.”
It didn’t hurt that San Jose was the first opponent for the former Dallas players. Neal and Niskanen played against the Sharks six times a year while with the Stars, as the two teams were Pacific Division rivals.
“It helps when you see a familiar team, but it’s a totally different atmosphere with new linemates and a new team,” Neal said.
But the on-ice communications among the Penguins made the transition to their new atmosphere a little smoother for Neal and Niskanen.
“They all really helped out and made things a little bit easier,” Niskanen said.
Both players acknowledged the difficulties of adjusting on the fly to a new team, but they are ready to embrace the challenge.
“It’s a big change, but it was a good one,” Neal said. “I’m excited for the upcoming games.”