KANATA, Ontario – Linemates James Neal
and Jarome Iginla
broke through for two-goal performances on Wednesday in Game 4 at Scotiabank Place, and essentially broke the Senators in the process as Pittsburgh beat Ottawa 7-3 and gained a 3-1 series lead.
Before tonight Neal had just one goal in seven playoff games, while Iginla had two in nine. The chances had been coming for both of them on their line with Evgeni Malkin; they just had not been able to convert – until tonight.
And their goals proved to be big ones in the game. After Ottawa got off to a big start by scoring shorthanded just 2:29 minutes into the first period, Neal responded by finding the back of the net with just over five minutes left in the frame. With the score tied 2-2 in the second period, Iginla and Neal both converted to give the Penguins a lead they didn’t give up – and continued to build.
“As a line, we just wanted to put pressure (on them) and get those scoring chances,” Iginla said. “We had some good scoring chances early that didn’t go in the first period, and I think as a line and also as a team, we just stuck with it. Guys stayed positive, kept doing the same things and fortunately we were able to get some behind them later.”
The biggest reason for the breakthrough, said Neal, was just finally getting used to each other as linemates. Not only has it been an adjustment for Iginla to come to Pittsburgh and join Neal and Malkin, who have had dynamic chemistry playing together for two seasons, but it’s been a process for him to get comfortable on the left wing – having played the majority of his Hall of Fame career on the right.
"Getting used to each other is the biggest thing, knowing each other's tendencies,” Neal said. “For me and ‘Geno,’ obviously we'e got that chemistry together. And ‘Iggy’ is working with us. We're always talking. We talked a lot with him, and he feels like he's getting that chemistry, too. It's big. He was great tonight, putting pucks in."
Despite the long drought for Neal, who scored 21 goals in the shortened season despite missing eight games due to injury, he had a positive outlook when speaking to the media about his lack of production just the day before.
Neal felt confident they would start going in as long as he stayed, in his words, upbeat and excited and happy. He remained true to those as best he could, trying not to get frustrated despite clanging one off the red painted metal in the first period as his line created a few marvelous scoring chances they couldn't convert, and he was rewarded for his patience.
"I was kind of shaking my head early when I shot that one that went off the post and bounced back,” said Neal, who finished with nine shots in the game. "I felt a little snakebitten after having some good looks. It was great to be able to find one. Gives you a boost.”
His teammates weren't worried in the slightest. They said with the kind of player Neal is, it was just a matter of time before the goals started going in – and they were right.
“You could tell he’s a very confident goal scorer and I think that’s important.” Iginla said of Neal. “Sometimes you get good chances and the goalie makes a better save some nights. Some nights you hit the post, sometimes you miss by two inches. Nobody really talked about it. Nobody squeezes their sticks or whatever and he doesn’t seem to. He definitely can put them in in bunches and you can tell when he starts feeling it and that release he has is second to none.”
So is Iginla's. We talk a lot about his ability to absolutely rip the puck, and it's certainly something to marvel at. He's been firing away in this series, recording eight shots in Game 2 – the second-highest single-game total of his postseason career (9; April 19, 2004 at Vancouver). But that being said, a guy who’s scored over 500 goals in the National Hockey League doesn’t get all of those from the perimeter.
A lot of them are dirty, and that’s how Iginla broke through for his first goal of the series with Senators – by simply crashing the net and tapping in a puck just sitting in the blue paint. It may not have been pretty, but a goal is a goal, and he’ll take it. His second, though, did end up coming with a quick release off the faceoff on a power play (Neal also had a power-play goal).
Though Malkin did not register a point Thursday, overall he has been a consistent producer during these playoffs, tied with Sidney Crosby for the team lead with 14 points (3G-11A). And he didn't really need to get on the scoresheet Wednesday, as his wingers came up with big performances. Now that Iginla and Neal have each broken through, they are going to be a scary line in an ocean-deep Penguins attack for the Senators to deal with in Pittsburgh for Game 5 on Friday.
“We stuck with it all night,” Neal said. “It was a tough one the other night to lose and we came in here with a huge effort and a chance to come back to our rink and be able to close it out.”