James Neal’s current, four-game point streak, a stretch that’s seen him tally five goals and add three helpers, is noticeable just by glancing at the scoresheet.
But what the stats won’t necessarily allude to is the Predators forward beating out an icing to keep a play alive, only to feed Mike Ribeiro for his first goal of the season. It also wouldn’t show the tenacious forechecking, or ability to muscle opponents off the puck and create chances in the offensive zone.
The confidence Neal has found from scoring five goals over the past 12 periods of hockey is feeding every facet of his game right now, a satisfying sign for the Preds.
“I think it starts with being physical and getting in there and the other things will follow,” Neal said. “It’s something I’ve tried to key in on, and I think it’s just hard work. You just have to try to outwork everyone you’re playing against. As a whole, our team has done that.”
“That’s the way he needs to play - we rely on him to score goals and bring that physical edge and shoot the puck and he’s doing that now,” forward Eric Nystrom said of Neal, “It’s about confidence, like any other player. When he’s confident, he’s super dangerous, so he needs to keep playing that way and being physical and being around the puck and shooting; that’s going to really help our team.”
Neal’s play, coupled with efforts throughout the lineup, has been a driving force in the club’s 6-1-0 start to the season. The Preds admittedly weren’t pleased with their offensive efforts through the first few games of the campaign, but 12 goals in regulation over the last three outings shows the offense is starting to click.
“It was good to see [Ribeiro] and [Colin Wilson] get one [against Anaheim] and it just gives you confidence when you score,” Neal said. “You get one, you feel better about yourself, you feel better about your game and we want everyone feeling confident.”
That confidence is likely to continue for Neal, especially with his former club, the Pittsburgh Penguins, coming into town on Saturday. Neal, who was traded from Pittsburgh to Nashville in June of 2014, admitted last season’s first meeting against the Pens brought about a sense of discomfort.
Fast forward almost a year to the day of Nashville’s 3-0 loss to the Penguins and Neal’s familiarity in Music City, combined with personnel changes across the way could make for a different result for No. 18.
“Last year was really weird; I had a hard time in the game playing and things just didn’t feel right,” Neal said. “There’s a few familiar faces, but this year is totally different. Nashville is home now and I feel really comfortable here and love it here. I’m just looking forward to a great Saturday night game against a good team, so it’ll be fun.”
When asked if he still has an idea of how to beat Penguins goaltender Marc-Andre Fleury, Neal’s smile widened before releasing a simple, “Yes.”
There’s that confidence again.