waited 246 regular-season games and spent countless hours training, practicing and preparing for this night – his NHL playoff debut.
And on Wednesday night in front of CONSOL Energy Center’s largest-ever crowd (18,390 strong), he certainly made the most of it.
Neal had a fantastic outing that was capped by the beautiful play he made to set up linemate Alex Kovalev for the game’s winning goal, which broke a 0-0 tie that extended throughout the first 46:05 of play.
It cemented the momentum in Pittsburgh’s favor and opened the door for Arron Asham
to find the back of the net just 18 seconds later to put the Penguins up 2-0, a lead they would not relinquish.
“First playoff game and first start, it was exciting,” Neal said. “I didn't know what to expect. I knew it would be loud and fun and the crowd would be jacked up, but it was way more than I expected and what a fun building to play in.”
On the goal, Neal took the point to become an outlet for defenseman Paul Martin
, who was being pressured on the boards. Martin fed a pass to Neal, who made a perfect shot-pass to Kovalev on the back-door for him to tap in.
“It was a great play by Paulie Martin there on the wall,” Neal said. “He stuck the guy to him and a little dink there back between his legs, and I got it and (Kovalev) was open.”
Kovalev had been taken down earlier on the play by a Lightning forward, and was slow getting up. Luckily, the play stayed hemmed in Tampa Bay’s zone thanks to Martin and Neal, which allowed Kovalev to get set up.
“I tried to get up and proceed with the play,” Kovalev said. “The puck was still in the zone, so I just tried to stay in front of the net and be patient to see if we could keep the puck in the zone. We did, and I got it wide open right in front of the door.”
Neal truly was a force all over the ice. Not only did he set up the Penguins’ first goal, but he used his size and strength to pressure Tampa Bay’s forwards on the backcheck, beginning the game with a couple of big hits.
He also drew a pair of penalties with his hustle and work ethic, helping the Penguins grab some much-needed momentum on the man-advantage.
“I felt good,” Neal said. “Just tried to keep it simple, to do the right things and shoot the puck as much as possible. I thought we did just that.”
It was fitting that Neal’s assist came on Kovalev’s goal.
Both players were acquired around the trade deadline to add some scoring punch to a Pittsburgh forward corps depleted by injuries, namely to superstars Sidney Crosby
and Evgeni Malkin
But while the two players had playing well since coming to Pittsburgh – skating on a line together and throwing everything but the kitchen sink at the net – they hadn’t had much luck sending pucks past the goal line during regulation, combining for three goals in the 20 games they've each played as Penguins.
But that all changed on Wednesday, as the two were quite a factor in Pittsburgh’s win.
“It’s obviously a new season when it comes to the playoffs, so we wanted to get off to a good start,” Neal said.
And get off to a good start they did.