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Storylines: Malkin and Neal Encore

by Sam Kasan / Pittsburgh Penguins

For Penguins forwards Evgeni Malkin and James Neal, it’s hard to imagine how they could possibly top their success from the 2011-12 season.

Malkin and Neal each netted career highs in goals while garnering many league awards and accolades.

James Neal and Evgeni Malkin combined for 90 goals in 2011-12.

Malkin, 26, won the ultimate trifecta of hardware after walking away from the NHL Awards in Las Vegas with the Art Ross (NHL scoring champion), Hart (NHL MVP) and Ted Lindsay awards (most outstanding player as voted by his peers). His 109 points were by far the most in the league (12 more than second-place Steven Stamkos).

Malkin, whose big year came after a summer of rehabbing knee surgery for torn ligaments that ended his 2010-11 season prematurely, also hit a new career high by scoring 50 goals.

Malkin’s success carried over into the 2012 World Championship. The Magnitogorsk native led Team Russia to gold while being named Top Forward and tournament MVP after setting a Russian WC record with 19 points (11G-8A).

Neal, 25, recorded 20-goal seasons in each of his first three NHL campaigns. Neal scored one goal in 20 games for Pittsburgh after being traded from Dallas in February of 2011.

After acclimating himself to his new team and city, Neal entered the 2011-12 season with a fresh start and fulfilled his abundant potential and talent. Neal enjoyed a breakthrough season and developed into one of the deadliest snipers in the NHL, netting 40 goals in 80 games. He also set career highs in assists (41) and points (81), while being named as a First-Team NHLer.

Also, Malkin and Neal finished No. 1 and 2 in the NHL in shots with 339 and 329 respectively and were named to the All-Star Team.

It is no coincidence that both Malkin and Neal enjoyed career years while playing side by side. Malkin’s unique playmaking ability, hockey sense and vision helped create open ice and scoring opportunities for his lineamates. Neal, learning Malkin’s tendencies, was able to find those open spaces. And when Malkin got the puck on Neal’s stick, his quick release and accurate shot made the duo a deadly combination.

The results should only get better as Neal and Malkin continue to develop their rapport together. They’ve set the bar high last year. But don’t be surprised if this season they raise that bar, even in a shortened season.

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