After it was announced on March 13 that the Penguins winger would be out indefinitely with a concussion, Neal is symptom-free and was cleared to return to full practice Monday at CONSOL Energy Center.
Neal, who also skated on his own before Sunday’s game vs. Philadelphia, said after practice that he was “feeling pretty good” and “had no issues.” And if he continues to remain symptom-free, Neal said there is a chance he can return Tuesday when the Penguins host his former team, the Dallas Stars.
“As long as I’m good all day today, (we’ll) see what goes on (Tuesday),” said Neal, who was sidelined for Pittsburgh’s home-and-home series with the Flyers this past weekend. “If I feel good in the morning, there’s no reason why I can’t keep going (and play vs. Dallas).”
However, head coach Dan Bylsma wasn’t ready to signal Neal’s return.
“Don’t know at this point in time (if he can play Tuesday vs. Dallas or Thursday in Detroit),” Bylsma said. “Obviously he was symptom-free and went out for a full practice, so hopefully he remains symptom-free and can progress from there.”
Neal said his concussion was from a hit he received in a previous game, but the 26-year-old declined to give specifics on when exactly it occurred.
“Just wasn’t feeling right from a hit,” he said. “Sometimes it’s tough to tell. Sometimes it doesn’t hit you right away. Felt a little weird, got checked out and needed a couple days and feeling better now.”
Neal said the symptoms have gone away over the last couple of days, so after skating on Sunday, he met with the doctor Monday morning – who cleared him to return to practice that day.
“Today was a good day and I felt good out there in practice,” he said. “Keep getting better from here.”
The Pens also saw another top-six winger return to full practice in Chris Kunitz.
While on a semi-breakaway early in the third period of Pittsburgh’s 2-0 win over Washington on March 11, Kunitz was knocked over by Caps defenseman Mike Green on his way to the net and slammed his legs off the goalpost. Despite being in obvious pain, Kunitz was eventually able to skate the bench. He missed just one shift while talking to head athletic trainer Chris Stewart and returned to play the rest of the period.
However, while Kunitz took warmups before Pittsburgh’s next game Saturday in Philadelphia, he wasn’t able to play. Kunitz sat out both that game and Sunday’s with a lower-body injury that had him listed as day-to-day.
Like Neal, Bylsma said Kunitz is also a possibility for Tuesday vs. Dallas.
“Chris Kunitz was on the ice skating again today, a full practice,” Bylsma said. “He went out before practice and a full practice. We’ll see where he goes (for) tomorrow’s game.”
Finally, Beau Bennett was also cleared to return to full practice on Monday. He engaged in high-tempo battle drills with Neal and Kris Letang at the end of the skate, and said it was a “good test for my wrist” and he “felt pretty good out there.”
Bennett originally suffered the injury Nov. 22 in a 4-3 win against the New York Islanders and underwent surgery three days later. Unfortunately, on Feb. 25 the Pens announced that Bennett suffered a “setback” and the team put him on a 3-4 week timeframe for return.
“(The doctors told me to) just keep trucking on the same path that I’ve been on as far as conditioning and strengthening and whatnot,” Bennett said. “So they’re happy with the progress I’ve made over the last couple weeks and we’re just going to go from here and take it day-by-day.”
Bennett admitted his frustration level with his slow recovery is high.
“But you’ve just got to keep everything in perspective,” he said. “It’s an injury I have to deal with, but a lot of people go through a lot worse stuff and I just got to keep it all in perspective and work towards getting back and playing.”
Bylsma said that Bennett is probably going to need to see a couple more days of full practice with full contact before he can think about returning to game action. But no matter when his actual return is, Bennett knows he’s close – and he’s excited.
“It’s been tough watching all these games,” he said. “You want to be around the team, but the fact of the matter is when you’re injured you skate before the team, you’re here before the team and you barely see any of the guys, so it’s good to get back and get into your routine.”
NOTE: The Pens’ Olympians minus Kunitz and the injured Paul Martin – Sidney Crosby, Evgeni Malkin, Brooks Orpik, Jussi Jokinen, and Olli Maatta – were given maintenance days on Monday and did not practice, per Bylsma.