Neal adjusted well after getting over the unexpected trade, coming to Nashville to start working with his new team.
"When you get traded, it's a shock," said Neal, who will face his former team for the first time Saturday when the Predators and Penguins face off at Bridgestone Arena. "As the summer went on and things are starting to get more and more in place, you just get more and more excited. I love the way our training camp was up-tempo. Guys came in here with a mindset, and everyone wanted to be a better team than last year. We've worked hard for that, and we're going to continue to work at that."
Nashville has started the season 5-0-2 and is the only team in the NHL that hasn't lost in regulation. Neal credits the work ethic of the Predators as a big factor in the hot start.
"I like the way we come to the rink every day with a smile on our face and we're ready to work. It's enjoyable to be around, and that's what makes hockey fun," Neal said.
Neal has played a big role in that start as of late, scoring a hat trick Thursday in a 3-2 win against the Chicago Blackhawks. He has five goals in the past four games for the Predators, which doesn't come as a surprise to his teammates who have seen his shot in practice.
"It's just a world-class shot," Predators forward Filip Forsberg said. "It's not a coincidence. He does that all the time in practice, so it was just a matter of time before he could get it off. It was a huge effort from him last game."
Neal has made an immediate impact as a leader for Nashville. He was named as an alternate captain to serve in the leadership group alongside defenseman Shea Weber and forward Mike Fisher.
"I think he's fit in early on here," Predators coach Peter Laviolette said. "You talk about off ice and you think it takes a little bit of time to get to know a player and for other players to get to know each other when you come to an organization, but his fit seemed to happen fairly quickly in training camp. Just a noticeable presence inside the room.
"You notice his voice. You notice his presence. You notice the way he practices on the ice, the way he plays in games. He's fit in fine. We've got a lot of good leaders in the room, and he's been a welcome addition."
Living in Nashville has given Neal a chance for a new start in his NHL career, and he's embraced the city since he moved in with teammate Rich Clune before recently finding a home of his own.
"It's been great," Neal said. "I mean I always loved coming into this city and playing, but now you make it a home and live here. I found a great house to live in, and it's been fun. I love everything about it."
Neal had an immediate appeal to the fans in Nashville ever since he was traded, filling the role of a dynamic goal-scoring forward the Predators have been seeking for years.
After playing five of seven games at home to open the season, Neal has been impressed with the fans and wants to change the perception of Nashville as a hockey town.
"The fans are great," Neal said. "Obviously when you hear Nashville, you don't think it's a hockey town, but we're trying to change that. My expectations are to change that. I think the fans have been great so far, and they're just going to continue to get better."
Those fans will get a chance to see Neal play against his former team when the Penguins come to town Saturday. While that might be the prevailing storyline, Neal is more concerned with making sure the Predators keep the hot start going.
"It's playing your old team, playing the guys you played with for so many years. It's going to be different," Neal said. "It's going to be weird at the start, but after the first few shifts it's another hockey game. We're out to do a job and to keep what we've built going in here. We know they're going to come out hard, losing the last two games. It'll be a good test for both teams."
Neal still keeps in contact with some Penguins players and is looking forward to seeing them Saturday. Those friendships will be put aside, however, once the puck drops.
"When you play with guys for so many years, you build friendships," Neal said. "I've still got great friends on that team, but when you’re playing it's one night and you go out there and battle."
The game against Pittsburgh isn't the only reason Neal is excited for Saturday. The Predators will be handing out bobbleheads of Neal before the puck drops.
"I haven't seen it yet, so I'm excited," Neal said. "I'm excited for the game and for the bobbleheads. Hopefully it looks good."
Seven games into his Nashville tenure, Neal has thrived in his new surroundings. He was brought in to be the guy, the game-changing forward that can be an offensive difference-maker. Neal wants that type of pressure. He thrives on it.
The Predators are hoping Neal can lead them back to the Stanley Cup Playoffs after missing out the past two seasons. If the start of the season for Neal and the team is any indication, the Predators have a good chance to do that.
Author: Robby Stanley | NHL.com Correspondent