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Neal Key to New-Look Power Play

by Sam Kasan / Pittsburgh Penguins

The Penguins practiced special teams at Day 2 of training camp. And the power play had a new look and feel to it.

James Neal and Kris Letang were positioned on the points with Chris Kunitz, Sidney Crosby and Evgeni Malkin playing up front.

“I’m just trying to get familiar with being back there,” said Neal, who has played point on the power play a few times in his hockey career. “It’s obviously different for me. We have some good looks from back there. I just have to find seams and look for shots to shoot from.”

James Neal (left) and Evgeni Malkin (right) - Getty Images

Neal, who led the NHL with 18 power-play goals, moved from an upfront position to a roving-type of role on the back end. He’ll line up at the point, but Neal will have some range to freelance and attack the net if an opportunity presents itself.

“I wouldn’t call (my position) the point. Letang is the point,” Neal explained. “I’m a rover, a little bit of everywhere. I just want to find those seams. With (Malkin) and (Crosby) on the half wall, they’re so good at finding seams. I just have to get lost when (opponents are) focused on those two. Hopefully, it will work out. It’s just a look and we’ll see how it goes.”

The Penguins, who finished last season with the No. 5 ranked power play in the NHL with a 19.7-percent success rate, will have Kunitz assuming his normal net-front role. Malkin and Crosby will rotate between the half wall and around the slot/goal line. Both centers will be trying to get the puck onto Neal’s stick.

“He has a great shot. He knows those areas to find as far as getting open,” Crosby said. “Guys with big shots, they can kind of get lost over there and get some space. It doesn’t take much for them to put it in the net. So it’ll be dangerous. With his shot, he’s going to get a lot of pucks through the net.”

There is a defensive gamble with having a forward at the point on the power play. However, Pittsburgh pulled off such a maneuver last season with former Penguin Steve Sullivan manning the position.

“You definitely weight (the risks and benefits),” head coach Dan Bylsma said.

Although Bylsma added that last season, Sullivan was the player holding the defensive responsibilities as the last man back with Letang being the rover. This season Letang will be the defensive-type player. Thus, this season’s makeup should be stronger defensively.

“(Letang) is the defender back there,” Bylsma said. “In that regard, I think we’re better and a little bit different than last year. … Everybody has to be cognizant of situations where they have to be back and get back.”

The Penguins hope the new-look power play will be even more affective than last season’s model.

Neal, who is a left-handed shot, seems a perfect fit for the rover position. And with the way he can shoot the puck, he may lead the NHL for the second season in a row in power-play goals.

“(Neal) is going to shoot,” Crosby said. “‘Geno’ and I will look to feed him and then if not, we’ve got to be ready around the net to put in rebounds and create things down low.”

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