By Matt Popchock

It’s just the Penguins’ luck this season that Ray Shero finally finds a winger who can give his team scoring depth, one worthy of complementing Sidney Crosby, and the two aren’t able to play together anytime in the immediate future.

At any rate, former Dallas Stars winger James Neal is an investment that will still pay off as much now as it will later.

Forget offensive “potential.”  We just want offense, period.

Lost in the fact that the Penguins did something statistically uncommon to them and dropped back-to-back games, and have now lost six of their last eight overall, is the fact that, two nights in a row, they skated on even terms with two teams that, on paper, are much better off than they are right now.  In both Sunday’s shootout loss in Chicago, and Monday’s defeat against the Capitals, a proven young finisher like Neal could have been a difference-maker.  The way the Penguins have been playing lately, he will be a difference-maker.

Without several of their most dependable forwards, two of whom just happen to be among the best on the planet, the Penguins simply aren’t used to having to bust their tail-feathers for goals the way they’ve been forced to.  Nevertheless, as badly as the Pens’ recent swoon might look to the naked eye, they haven’t been out of any of those games, largely because of sustained, superior team defense and more strong play from Marc-Andre Fleury.

This team has no qualms with playing–and winning–low-scoring, grind-it-out games, and not having Alex Goligoski will not subtract from its ability to play that style.  Fans are quick to hail Shero as a genius, and understandably so, but the principle behind his wheeling and dealing is merely Sports Management 101.  He dealt from a position of strength to improve upon a position of weakness.  As we’ve learned the hard way, defense is the one and only position where the Pens can ostensibly survive a roster hit.

Heading into tonight’s home contest versus San Jose, the Pens sit second-best in the Eastern Conference and fifth in the NHL with 147 goals allowed.  Goligoski, in 60 games for the Penguins this year, played a role in that, earning a plus-20 rating, but so have Kris Letang, Paul Martin, Brooks Oprik, Zbynek Michalek and others.  Furthermore, with a promising and rapidly-maturing draftee like Simon Despres waiting for his day to come, we haven’t seen the last of players like Goose in a Penguin uniform.

Not that he won’t be missed.  Dan Bylsma certainly feels that way, and why not?  He was the Penguins’ leading goal-scorer among defensemen and generally made the most of his ice time, though, for reasons I can’t fathom, some fans have made it clear they won’t miss him at all.

Generally, I have a high opinion of Penguin fans, but at one time, some of you reading this did not necessarily hesitate to criticize Letang…then once you realized how young both are, and how tough it is to learn their position at the NHL level, and once you saw Tanger pick up his own game, you were one of the masses who wrote him into All-Star Sunday, I’m sure.

But while Goligoski, Letang, and the rest were supporting Fleury, the Penguins, in their last eight outings, scored a measly 14 goals.  In 11 games since the All-Star break, they’ve scored 24, which computes to an average of barely over two per game.  This is where Neal comes in.

During that time the Pens have come up on the short end of a couple close, tight-checking games, but with a forward like him in the lineup they will be able to reverse the outcome of such games.  He’s been a 20-goal scorer in each of his first three NHL seasons, and don’t be surprised when that 20 becomes 30, especially when he gets to, presumably, play a full season with Crosby.  With his five power play tallies–half as many as Sid had before his injury–Neal can also bolster a unit that, without its deadliest snipers, has looked out of sync and flat-out lost on multiple occasions.

In addition, with Dustin Jeffrey, Mark Letestu, and Chris Kunitz all on the mend and not far away from returning to the lineup, that will take some of the immediate pressure off Neal to be a makeshift Sid or Geno, so to speak.  Frankly, Neal almost reminds me of Kunitz, a capable power forward who, as of late, has been made better by skating with Crosby.

Inconsistency has been his greatest bugaboo; he recently ended a long scoreless drought.  But with 39 points he has still found ways to contribute, and besides, inconsistency has also plagued the career of ex-Penguin Alex Kovalev, another possible trade target over whom many fans are suddenly fawning.

On a bigger scale, inconsistency has also plagued the career of defenseman Matt Niskanen, the ancillary component of Monday’s trade.  Once a highly-touted prospect in the Stars organization, he apparently fell out of favor with that crew, and has the downward spiraling numbers to prove it.

There’s not much of a book on Niskanen, who is roughly the same age as Goligoski–other than his November brawl with Sid in Dallas–so I can’t really sit here and play armchair GM like I am with Neal.  However, it is not out of the realm of possibility to think he can contribute to the Penguins’ future as well.  He’s a puck-moving defenseman, a component that would be welcome to the power play, and he’s surrounded by a strong defensive corps, players who can potentially make those around them better.  He’s not the first of his ilk to come here around deadline time, either.

When Marian Hossa infamously came to Pittsburgh three seasons ago, Pascal Dupuis was not the focal point of that deal, but he has since gone on to do many of the things Hossa was brought here for…and do them well, I might add.  I’m sure even some hockey nerds like myself didn’t care when some guy named Craig Adams was brought in…until Adams became an important role player during the Cup run.  Niskanen is a project, but also a player who is likely to embrace this particular change of scenery.  If he doesn’t turn the puck over, and if Bylsma gets him to shoot more aggressively than Goligoski did, it’s a huge step in the right direction.

In the meantime, Dallas saw the end of an era when it waved bye-bye to stalwart goalie Marty Turco and face-of-the-franchise Mike Modano, but it won’t have to wave bye-bye to a surprising resurgence and playoff push with an up-and-comer like Goose on their blue line to help the team get out of its recent skid.  He’s in a good place, and so are Neal and Niskanen…and so are the Pens.

It’s not like they haven’t had opportunities to win games lately.  They just haven’t finished them.  James Neal will, and he will help the Pens hold on to home-ice advantage in the Eastern Conference playoff standings until they get healthier.  Ray Shero and Penguin fans alike may have finally found the long-term solution they wanted when it comes to solving the team’s lack of steady top-five forwards.

Time to get excited about the stretch run.  A strong finish to the 2010-11 season might still be in the Stars.

For more of the latest news and views on the Penguins, be sure to tune into “The Penalty Box with Tom Grimm” this Saturday on SportsRadio 93.7 The Fan!

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