For the first three seasons of his pro career, James Neal
had to watch the Stanley Cup playoffs on television from his living room.
But this year, Neal is going to be living what he’s dreamed about since he put on his first pair of hockey skates.
“It’s always tough when your season ends short,” Neal said. “You go home and you’re watching the fun the guys are having playing in those huge games and scoring those big goals.
“Just everything that surrounds the playoffs and growing up and watching them, it is something you dream about being a part of. I couldn't ask to be in a better team going into the playoffs right now.”
Neal admitted there’s plenty of nerves and anticipation heading into his first-ever playoff game. But he said all he can try to do until he gets that first shift under his belt is try to stave off the butterflies as best he can.
“Just getting warmed up this morning, it’s getting almost to game time here and it’s pretty exciting,” Neal said. “Just don’t get nervous, know it’s another game, just with a little bit more intensity. You’re playing for everything. So just stay calm, be excited and do what you do.”
Neal is one of three Penguins to potentially make their NHL playoff debuts tonight, with defensemen Ben Lovejoy
and Deryk Engelland
being the others.
Both Lovejoy and Engelland will be drawing on their playoff experiences in the American Hockey League to help them out during the Penguins’ run.
Lovejoy played 37 playoff games with Wilkes-Barre/Scranton over the past three seasons before making Pittsburgh’s roster full-time this season, helping the team to the Calder Cup Finals in 2008. Meanwhile, Engelland captured the Calder Cup with Hershey in 2006.
“It’s huge,” Engelland said. “If you make a run in any league, it’s that experience of when the game is on the line and putting your body on the line and stuff like that. I think the group of guys we’ve got in here, everyone’s willing to do it and pay the price to do what it takes.”
In addition to his experience on the ice with WBS, Lovejoy plans on drawing from his time traveling with Pittsburgh during their playoff runs the last two seasons, including their Stanley Cup championship in 2009.
“I watched a lot of hockey the past couple of Mays and Junes,” he said. “You see the intensity of both the crowds and both teams. It’s a more aggressive game. You can just see the speed and the desperation in every play that maybe you don't see in a game in January.”
Neal, Lovejoy and Engelland have plenty of veteran teammates to learn from, as the Penguins have 15 players who won the Stanley Cup, 17 who have been to at least one Cup Final and 14 who have appeared in 50 or more postseason games on their current roster.
Head coach Dan Bylsma said those players’ mindsets are currently much different than Neal’s, Lovejoy’s or Engelland’s. But that’s sure to change once Game 1 is in the books.
feels different right now than James Neal
on our team,” Bylsma said. “He’s played in a lot of games, a lot of Game 1s, a lot of series. He feels different. He’s still pretty excited to go. There’s that anticipation that every player has going into the game, but Jordan understands there’s going to be a Game 2. I’m not sure James Neal
does just yet.”
“I am just excited to get playing here,” Neal said. “I can't wait to see the way the CONSOL (Energy Center) is (Wednesday) with the excitement and the fans and the buzz around the playoffs here.”