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Neal Playing Like An All-Star

by Michelle Crechiolo / Pittsburgh Penguins
James Neal got his first taste of the NHL All-Star Weekend when he played in the YoungStars Game three years ago.

The event took place in hockey-crazed Montreal, where then-rookie Neal tallied three assists while skating alongside players like Tampa Bay’s Steven Stamkos and Los Angeles’ Drew Doughty – and against current teammate Kris Letang.

“It’s obviously just an honor to go there,” Neal said of the experience. “Just being around all the other great players, seeing what goes on and being a part of all the fun, it’s a cool thing to be a part of.”

And with the way Neal is playing this season, he deserves to be playing with the big boys in this year’s NHL All-Star Game set for Jan. 27-29 at Scotiabank Place in Ottawa.

“Why not? It’s his best year,” linemate Evgeni Malkin said. “If he plays the next month great, then why not?”

Neal’s natural quick release and powerful shot has helped him hit the 20-goal plateau, something he’s now accomplished each of his four NHL campaigns as he’s tied for third in the league with 21 tallies through 38 games this season.

"He’s fast, has a great shot," added Malkin. "Sometimes I just give him the puck and he’s got a great shot, shoots and scores. He’s an awesome guy, awesome player."

But this year, Neal has been much more consistent with his production, as he’s collected points in 27 of those contests and is the only player in the league this season to have two point streaks of seven-plus games.

Defenseman Matt Niskanen knows Neal well, as they were both drafted by Dallas and played there for three seasons before they were traded to Pittsburgh together last February. Niskanen has noticed the way Neal has come into his own as a power forward with finishing ability.

“Every year he’s had spurts of just awesome goal scoring,” Niskanen said. “But I think even he would say he’s had a few dry spells in the past, where this year he’s been really, really consistent and is just kind of steadily been finding the net and creating offense. I think his all-around game is just getting that much better. He’s continuing to score a lot of goals for us.”

But while everyone else’s focus is on Neal’s goal output, the rest of his teammates agree with Niskanen that Neal’s concentrating on other parts of his game. The way Neal plays away from the puck is something he’s done effectively ever since arriving in Pittsburgh last year, and it’s a huge reason why he’s been so successful this season.

It’d mean a lot. I’d be honored to play there and be noticed. To be voted in would be something pretty special. - James Neal, on the 2012 All-Star Game
“I think even when he’s not scoring, which hasn’t been too often, he does other things that help out the team,” defenseman Brooks Orpik said. “Whether it’s when he runs around and every body part is flying everywhere out of control, he’s physical and he’s a lot better than people probably think he is defensively.”

The 6-foot-2, 208-pound winger uses his physicality and speed in the offensive zone to create space for himself and his linemates. Neal sacrifices himself to abuse from the other team so that he can get in the dirty areas where he can score goals.

But the second the opposing team clears the zone, Neal is the first one back hounding the puck and fulfilling his defensive responsibilities to the fullest.

“He’s got his speed, which is an aggressive part of his game,” head coach Dan Bylsma said. “It’s not just him with the lethal shot that he has and the goal scoring ability. You see that game in and game out right now for James. … He’s an effective force. It doesn’t just have to be putting the puck in the net.”

Neal certainly feels at home in Pittsburgh, since he’s been in the area for nearly a year after being traded. But with that being said, Neal agreed that this is the most comfortable he’s ever felt in the NHL, period.

“Just the overall play and my game and the way I’m doing things, I feel a lot more comfortable and a lot more confident,” Neal said. “It’s hard to explain, but it’s the everyday atmosphere here. It’s coming to the rink and having fun. It’s all those little things that tie into your on-ice play.”

And hopefully, he can take his all-around game to Ottawa at the end of the month.

“It’d mean a lot. I’d be honored to play there and be noticed,” he said. “To be voted in would be something pretty special.”
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