OTTAWA – Pittsburgh Penguins forward James Neal has yet to score a goal against the Ottawa Senators in the Eastern Conference Semifinals and has scored once thus far in the Stanley Cup Playoffs. However, the 40-goal scorer has a very philosophical outlook on the untimely drought.
"You can't get frustrated," Neal said after practice Tuesday. "It's fun to be in the playoffs, it's fun to be playing hockey every day, so you've got to enjoy this. If you don't, it all goes fast. I think when you stay upbeat and stay excited and stay happy, goals and points and that kind of stuff will come. With the team being successful, everything's all right."
His team could have used a goal -- from Neal or someone else -- in Game 3, a 2-1 double-overtime loss to the Senators that the Penguins were leading with 28.6 seconds to play in regulation.
But besides the fun of the playoffs, Neal also said he feels his game is in a good place. In his past two games he's had nine shots on goal, and seven attempts either missed or were blocked. The nine shots on goal were one more than Neal had in his first five playoff games combined. He said he watched some video Monday and found some minor adjustments he can make to get to better scoring areas, but by and large, he wants to continue doing what he's doing.
"If you're getting shots, you're putting yourself in the right position," Neal said. "For me, I try to use my shot as much as possible, but it's tough to get those good scoring chances. They're boxing you out, they're coming hard at you, they're not giving you much room."
Nor are Neal's linemates scoring much either against Ottawa; Jarome Iginla is also without a goal in the three games, and Evgeni Malkin has one, in Game 1. But Iginla and Malkin have been consistent point producers throughout the playoffs, and Neal's game is predicated on scoring goals.
"I think a lot of goal-scorers are streaky, and the most important thing is just winning games," Iginla said. "You know he's going to score goals, but one thing here [on the Penguins] is I don't think there's a panic to score goals. Lots of different guys all year have scored goals, and all playoffs we've scored goals."
That scoring depth is why Senators defenseman Jared Cowen was somewhat taken aback when asked what his team was doing to keep Neal off the scoresheet.
"They have a pretty stacked lineup from our point of view, a lot of great players there," Cowen said. "He's just another player in their lineup we're trying to key in on. He's got such a great shot, so I think we're trying to push him outside to give him worse angles.
"It's fine with us. He can miss all he wants."
Though it might be difficult to do when everything is so magnified, Neal said the lack of results are not overshadowing the fact he is respecting the process required to score goals. He is getting to scoring areas and he is firing pucks on net. Eventually, in theory, they should start going in.
"If my game wasn't there, if I wasn't playing the way I like, then I'd be worried," he said. "But when you're getting shots, you're getting chances and creating things, it's different. We had some great chances to bury a lot of pucks, [Iginla] had one, [Malkin] had one; they just didn't go. It's right there for us."
Coach Dan Bylsma agreed, saying Neal has had six scoring chances in three games in the series, and they were all nearly identical. If he converts on just one, Bylsma feels Neal could take off. But in the meantime the Penguins are stacked with other players who can contribute offensively to take some of the pressure off, as Iginla also said.
"We're not looking for James to be the one guy to shoot the puck in the net. He certainly has had those opportunities and good looks, but he doesn't have that type of pressure on his game," Bylsma said. "He certainly feels as though he just needs that one. When you play a game like the last one when it comes down to one goal, one shot, one situation, I think every player on our team feels like they had that on their stick in one point in time."
Neal's struggles could be injury-related -- he missed Games 2 and 3 of the first round -- but they actually go further back than the playoffs. In fact, Neal has scored a goal in three of his past 21 games after scoring in 15 of his first 26 games this season.
This, however, is something Neal has experienced before.
When he was first traded to the Penguins from the Dallas Stars, Neal scored once in 20 regular-season games and once in a seven-game playoff loss to the Tampa Bay Lightning -- but that one goal was a double-overtime winner in Game 4.
Having gone through that is perhaps why Neal is able to see his current situation in such a Zen manner.
"The toughest part was when I first came to Pittsburgh and I couldn't score for the life of me, but at the same time I thought my game was OK and I was still doing the exact same things, I just couldn't find one," Neal said. "It'll come. As long as our team's winning, I'm really not worried about anything."
Having lost Game 3, the Penguins chances of winning Game 4 and going back home with a 3-1 series lead would increase dramatically if Neal could find his scoring touch sooner rather than later.
Author: Arpon Basu | Managing Editor LNH.com