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Neal Motivated to Face Former Team in Stanley Cup Final

Traded from Pittsburgh to Nashville Three Years Ago, Preds Winger Can't Wait to Play Pens

by John Glennon @glennonsports /

James Neal was surrounded by Pittsburgh teammates when he learned he was no longer one of them.

That's the first recollection Neal has of the trade that sent him from the Penguins to the Predators in June of 2014.

He and a number of other Penguins players were spending the day on a boat in Minnesota, enjoying the wedding of then-Pittsburgh defenseman Matt Niskanen. Forward Chris Kunitz half-jokingly reminded everyone the day had other significance as well:

"It's draft day," Kunitz said of one of the NHL's busiest trade days, "so [everyone] better check their phone."

Hours later, after Neal had regained cell-phone service, he listened to a bombshell voicemail: He was headed to Nashville in exchange for forwards Patric Hornqvist and Nick Spaling.

"It was definitely a shock," Neal said. "It's definitely a weird feeling when you get traded from a team, and it made it even weirder when you're with your teammates at a wedding."

Video: STL@NSH, Gm4: Neal picks the corner with wrister

It's been three years since Neal left the Steel City for Music City, but as the Predators prepare to play the Penguins in the Stanley Cup Final, Neal acknowledges that taking on his old team still holds special meaning.

One reason is he'll be going head to head with a number of former teammates he still keeps in touch with - players like Sidney Crosby, Evgeni Malkin, Kunitz and Trevor Daley.

"But when you're playing in the Stanley Cup Final," Neal said, "the friendships will be put aside for a few weeks and we'll go to battle, go to war, do all the things that can help our team win."

Another reason is the extra edge any player who's been traded feels toward his former team, even though players know personnel movement is part of the business. It was hard for Neal not to feel a sense of frustration when he recalls the deal, as he'd piled up 184 points (89g-95a) in 199 games over four seasons with the Penguins.

"Anytime you get traded from a team and you move onto the next, you always want to play good against your old team," Neal said. "It would be the same thing for any guy that got traded. It gives you a little extra motivation, I'd say."

Video: Ekholm, Neal and Sissons discuss facing Penguins

Disappointed as Neal may have been at the time, however, he's long since embraced the move to Nashville. He arrived at the same time as Predators Head Coach Peter Laviolette, who just happens to favor an up-tempo, offensive-minded system that suits Neal perfectly.

Neal has totaled 23, 31 and 23 goals in his three years here, meaning he's extended his streak of scoring over 20 goals to nine consecutive seasons.

"He's been great," Laviolette said. "He's a power forward. He gets the puck off [his stick]. He scores goals, he can play physical. He's a veteran player that's been in some playoff games … so it's good to have a guy like that when you're going into a series."

While Neal has continued to score with regularity in Nashville, he's changed in other ways since arriving from Pittsburgh, according to teammates.

Predators goalie Pekka Rinne, for instance, notes Neal isn't just about offense.

"I feel like he's become more of an all-round player," Rinne said. "We use him in a lot of different situations. He's always been a very good player. Everyone knows that. But I feel like maybe [Laviolette] has brought up other areas in his game."

Predators forward Harry Zolnierczyk, a teammate of Neal's in Pittsburgh during the 2013-14 season, feels that Neal - who has been an alternate Predators captain since he arrived - has turned into an even better leader.

Video: NSH@ANA, Gm1: Neal nets Subban's feed for OT win

"I think the word that maybe comes to my mind is maturity," Zolnierczyk said. "It's not like he was immature in Pittsburgh. It's more that he's taken on more responsibility in terms of his leadership.

"I think he's more vocal than he was in Pittsburgh. Not over the top, but just when things need to be said or addressed … I've seen him embrace that role and really be a guy the rest of the younger guys and older guys are looking for to be a difference."

It's worth pointing out as well that the 6-foot-2, 221-pound Neal - in addition to contributing five goals and two assists in the playoffs - has upped his physical presence. After averaging 1.2 hits per game during the season (eighth on the team), Neal is delivering 2.1 hits per game in the postseason, fifth-best on the Predators.

Those numbers should only grow in the Cup Final, when Neal's hits against the Penguins may carry a touch more purpose than they might against any other opponent.

"I think when you get traded out of a place, you feel like they kind of gave up on you and they got rid of you," Neal said. "But you go to a place that truly believes in you, and you want to do your best to be better. I think I've done that here and it's been a lot of fun."

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