has scored a lot of goals this year, but he’d never gotten three in a game with the Penguins entering Tuesday’s tilt against Winnipeg at CONSOL Energy Center.
That all changed within the first two periods.
Neal scored his second career hat trick in the Penguins’ wild 8-4 triumph over the Jets and added an assist for a total of four points on the night, a new personal best for the 24-year-old winger. He also set a new single-game career high with 10 shots on goal.
Neal’s first hat trick came on Dec. 23, 2008 at Toronto when he was a member of the Dallas Stars. The feat was extra special for Neal as he grew up in Whitby, Ontario – a mere 45 minutes from the provincial capital.
But don’t worry – this one was just as sweet.
“I got one my first game back in Toronto being at home in front of friends and family. That was pretty special,” Neal said. “But any time you get a hat trick, it’s fun. … Some great plays by my linemates and shoot the puck.”
Neal now has 35 goals and is averaging a point-per-game this season with 72 points through 72 games. But while his numbers are outstanding, before tonight the puck hadn’t been finding the back of the net with its usual consistency for Neal.
“To see him get the goals is great,” head coach Dan Bylsma said. “I think especially because maybe the last 5, 6, 7, 8 games – he got a goal in New Jersey – but hasn’t gotten the goals. He’s gotten assists and made some plays, but tonight you saw vintage James Neal
in terms of reading off ‘Geno’ (Evgeni Malkin
) and getting open and getting a shot on net.”
‘Vintage James Neal
’ is the perfect way to describe each of the winger’s goals, as each epitomized the shoot-first mentality that’s evolved him into an elite NHL scorer this season.
Neal’s first stuck out the most to him, as it came when the Penguins were down 2-1 late in the first with Tobias Enstrom in the box for holding. Sidney Crosby
got a pass while stationed near the halfwall and made a sick behind-the-back pass through coverage to Malkin at the side of the net. Malkin pushed a perfect pass across the crease to Neal, who floated the puck into the wide-open cage before Jets goalie Ondrej Pavelec could react.
“We needed a big goal,” Neal said. “That was a good pass by ‘G.’ We had some good looks all night on the power play. Sid made some great plays.”
Malkin would get the primary assist on Neal’s second goal early in the second, when he stickhandled to the net and forced Pavelec to get out of position while making a save. The rebound popped to Neal at the side of the net. He quickly sneaked it between Pavelec and the post for the score.
For his third goal of the night, Neal connected with – surprise, Malkin – late in the middle frame.
Defenseman Brooks Orpik
broke the puck out of the Penguins’ zone with speed, giving it to a breaking Neal on the side of the ice. He dropped a pass to Malkin, who gave it right back for Neal to slam home and cause the hats to litter to the ice.
What stood out the most about Neal’s goals is how quickly he teed them off. The puck was like a hot potato – it barely touched his stick on each of the scores before Neal sent them toward the cage. And once they got there, they tickled the twine with the accuracy and precision that’s the trademark of pure goal scorers.
“Shooting the puck as much as possible tonight, that comes from right off the first power play,” said Neal, who ranks second in the NHL behind Malkin (300) with 293 shots. “I was getting some good chances in front there. Then I managed to find one. It’s the same thing that’s been going on all year. I want to get the puck off as quick as possible and shoot the puck as much as I can.”
“Some pretty outstanding shooting by him,” Bylsma said. “It was great to see him get that hat trick and nice to see him also get back scoring goals. He’s gotten back on track there.”