That motto has especially held true this year with Dallas left winger James Neal. After going 10 games without a goal in December, the Real Deal now has goals in each of his last two games and in three of his last five.
For Crawford, the reasons for his young winger’s offensive resurgence are fundamental.
“He’s playing much better. I thought last night [Tuesday], he forechecked well and he finished checks in the offensive zone. When he’s doing that, he’s on the puck more,” the Stars head coach said. “And when he’s got the puck, he can use those favorable assets, which are his quick release and the strength of his shot.”
Speaking of Neal’s strong shot, that was on full display in Tuesday’s 3-2 win over the Oilers at the American Airlines Center. His third-period blast after Edmonton had tied the game with a pair of tallies in the final frame was an absolute rocket launcher, so fast that it struck the crossbar, came back out and rolled past center ice before coming to rest in the Dallas end.
It was so fast that it took video review for the officials to determine it was a goal. For his head coach, seeing blasts like that from the 23-year-old scorer is nothing new.
“Well, James is a shooter. He’s got an overpowering shot,” Crawford said. “Guys like to joke a little bit about how hard he can shoot the puck. You got an idea of it last night. It was so fast and so quick, his release and so powerful that it was hard to pick up other than on the video replay. Thank God we had video replay. It’s a huge goal at that point in the game. Edmonton had tied the game. James got a wonderful opportunity and he took advantage of that opportunity.
But Crawford isn’t the only one to notice Neal has regained his offensive groove.
“His game is very strong right now. He’s hitting everything that moves and he’s got that shooting mentality now,” Dallas center Steve Ott
said. “His shot is so deadly that at any moment, he can score a big goal like he did last night for us. That’s what we need him to do. He’s out there to score goals and play hard. If he keeps doing that, we’re going to be lucky on this team to have that.”
Neal didn’t have a ton to say about the tally, which was his first at the AAAC since December 10, a span of 10 games.
“I got a quick pass from Richie there. I just tried to put myself in a position to shoot the puck quick,” he said. “I got it off as fast and hard as I could and managed to find its way to the back of the net.”
He admits that effort produced one of the oddest deflections he’s ever seen.
“Yeah, it was a weird one. I didn’t know it went in,” Neal said. “I just tried to get it off as quick as possible because I was getting hit there. It kind of went in weird and came flying back out. It felt good to score at home. I hadn’t scored at home in a while, so it felt good to get back on the scoresheet.”
However, he had little idea it was a goal until after the referee made it official following a quick consultation with the NHL officials in Toronto.
“I had no clue. Going out to the bench, Otter said it was in. I wasn’t sure. Seeing the instant replay, it was in the back of the net,” Neal said. “It was a good feeling.”
And it was his goal that allowed Dallas to snap a home winless streak that had reached five games, something also not lost on the Oshawa, Ontario native.
“It was huge, especially being at home and not winning in the last little while. After winning on the road but coming home and having a little bit of a lull and not winning was tough, we put a lot of emphasis on yesterday’s game,” Neal said. “We managed to find a way-a big win for the team.”
He did offer his thoughts on how he’s doing the little things better than he was during his 10-game scoring draught.
“I think when you’re scoring and stuff, sometimes you take things for granted. You think it becomes easier than it is,” Neal said. “When you have those lulls, you have to go back to the basics of finishing checks, going to the net and doing those little things that help you be around the net and help you create chances. Sometimes when you get away from that and play an easy game, it happens and you’re not finding the net or aren’t in areas to score.”
One thing that made it easier for him to handle his goalless streak was the fact the Stars went 5-3-2 during those 10 games.
“You’re going to go through ups and downs but you’ve got to battle through those. As long as the team’s winning, I’m happy,” Neal said. “But at the same time, you always like to chip in and help out the team any way you can by being around the net. It comes and goes. It comes in bunches, a little spurt here but have just got to keep going here and stay as level as possible.”
Constant encouragement from veteran teammates like captain Brenden Morrow
and Brad Richards also helped him keep his head up during his struggles.
“They just keep you upbeat. Like I said, if the team’s winning, everything is good. It’s when the team starts losing and you’re not producing that you start to doubt yourself,” Neal said. “As long as the team’s doing well, you just keep going with the flow and doing as much as you can to get back in the groove of scoring and helping out your line mates.”
On Saturday night, Neal will look to score in his third straight game when Atlanta visits the AAC for a 7:00 opening face-off.