About eight hours before Game 5 between Pittsburgh and the Ottawa Senators, James Neal
sat at his locker and proclaimed the Pens needed to “try to break” their opponent.
His three goals and one gorgeous assist Friday night took care of that, leading the Pens to a 6-2 series-clinching victory in Game 5 of their Eastern Conference Semifinals matchup with the Sens.
“We have to be ready every night, no matter who we’re playing,” Neal said. “It was a tough series, the first series against the Islanders, and I think ever since then, we’ve kept getting better each game and getting on a roll.”
Two days after producing two goals and an assist in the Pens’ Game 4 victory over the Senators at Scotiabank Place, Neal’s performance was so picturesque, he decided to outdo it in Pittsburgh for the hometown faithful. Neal blew the roof off CONSOL Energy Center when he sent a wrist shot past Ottawa netminder Craig Anderson late in the third period, netting his third goal of the night and sending a tidal wave of hats flowing from the stands.
The three goals were the first home goals of Neal’s postseason career with the Penguins and a big smile crept across his face as he basked in the moment by saluting the fans while countless lids poured over the glass.
“That was a smile for a lot of things,” Neal said. “Mainly just feeling the emotions that we’re going to win and that the series is going to be done was the biggest thing. So, anytime you score it feels good, but doing it in front of the home crowd and getting this win was special.”
Just a week ago, on the morning prior to Game 2, Neal fielded questions concerning early struggles during this postseason – having scored three points (1G-2A) through the first seven games. But as he sat at his locker stall that Friday, he adamantly pronounced that he was confident his game would ignite soon.
And it did in Game 4. Neal has now recorded a total of five goals and seven points in the past two games. It’s safe to say that the Pittsburgh sniper has his sights lined perfectly and is playing at the top of his game heading into the Eastern Conference Finals.
“Tonight, James, much like in Game 4, was the guy we turned to,” coach Dan Bylsma said.
On this Friday, Neal caught fire in the second period, starting with a wicked wrist shot that tickled the twine with 12:22 left in the period.
“We have a lot of scary guys up front,” said Kris Letang, who assisted on Neal’s first goal, “but James with his shot, obviously, he can score some big goals at key moments. I think he came up big tonight again.”
Neal continued to produce later in the period when he set up Evgeni Malkin’s breakaway goal. After Malkin forced a turnover near the blue line, Neal gathered the puck by the boards, then sent a pinpoint pass onto Malkin’s tape.
Neal tacked on another goal of his own, his second of the game, midway through the third period when he stole the puck off of Sergei Gonchar’s blade and whipped around the Senators’ net before placing a wrist shot past Anderson’s rising glove.
His third and final goal came on a gorgeous toe drag that turned defending Norris Trophy winner Erik Karlsson inside out.
The Penguins already fielded the NHL’s most prolific offensive unit prior to Neal’s outburst over the past two games, but with the ‘Real Deal’ firing on all cylinders the past two games, Pittsburgh has scored a combined 13 goals – a figure reminiscent of 1980s Edmonton Oilers.
“We gave them the respect they deserved,” Neal said. “I think we surprise ourselves when we play with a lot of speed and get the puck behind them and keep going to the net. So, it showed again tonight. We were getting it behind them, being physical.
“I can’t say enough about how hard we played throughout the series.”