PITTSBURGH (93-7 The FAN/AP) — Take your time Sidney Crosby. At the rate James Neal is going, there’s no need to hurry back.
Neal continued his scorching October, scoring his NHL-leading seventh goal as the Penguins beat struggling Montreal 3-1 on Thursday.
“Things are going good, I’m feeling good, the team’s rolling,” Neal said. “You keep doing the right things, hopefully they’ll keep coming.”
They’re the goals Neal thought he would score last spring after arriving in a trade from Dallas. He managed just one tally in 20 games with Pittsburgh and was ineffective in a loss to Tampa Bay in the opening round of the playoffs.
Yet there’s something about October that brings out the best in Neal, who has 34 points in 33 career games in the month. His goal Thursday came with the kind of luck he lacked last season. His shot from the circle clanged off the post then hit goalie Carey Price in the back before rolling across the goal line and lifting him into a tie with Toronto’s Phil Kessel for the league lead.
“When you’re doing the right things and you’re playing with speed, you know you’re a tough team to play against,” Neal said.
Marc-Andre Fleury stopped 27 shots and Joe Vitale and Arron Asham added their first goals of the season for the busy Penguins.
Pittsburgh has played a league-high nine times in the season’s first two weeks, including a pair of trips out west. The hectic schedule has taken a toll on the number of healthy bodies available, though the Penguins were buoyed by the return of defenseman Brooks Orpik and reserve Dustin Jeffrey.
Orpik played more than 17 minutes in his first game of the season. He sat out the first two weeks while recovering from abdominal surgery. His presence was sorely needed for a team missing defenseman Kris Letang, who sat out his second straight game while serving a two-game suspension for an illegal hit in Winnipeg on Monday.
“I felt better as the game went on,” Orpik said. “If it was up to me I would have probably played more, but sometimes I’m not the smartest guy in the world. They probably had a reason for what they did and obviously it worked out really well.”
Not so much for the Canadiens, who have lost four straight. Price stopped 29 shots for Montreal and Brian Gionta scored with less than 2 minutes to go but the Canadiens went 0 for 4 on the power play and have scored just eight goals during their slide, with five of them coming in a shootout loss to Colorado on Saturday.
“It seems like if one starts to get going, the other things not going,” Price said. “We just need to throw it all together, and once we do that I think we’ll get on a roll. But until then we’ve just got to bear down on our details. We gotta all get on the same page and hopefully things will work out.”
Things are working out for the Penguins, who are 5-2-2 this season despite playing without Crosby. The former MVP continues his slow comeback from a pair of concussions that have sidelined him since January and there remains no timetable for his return.
The Penguins also are playing without Evgeni Malkin, who is day-to-day with soreness in his surgically repaired left knee.
The way Neal is lighting it up, Crosby and Malkin can take their time.
“It’s been that way since I got here,” Neal said. “We just play the right way. We go North with the puck, we play quick.”
While Neal’s play was expected, Vitale has been a surprise. He scored his first goal of the season and second of his career in the second, deflecting in a shot from Deryk Engelland by Price to put the Penguins up 2-0.
Asham batted in a shot from the slot early in the third period to score his first goal of the season in his 700th career game.
Montreal’s offense continued to flounder even with the return of Mike Cammalleri, who missed the previous three games with a leg laceration.
“We’re lacking some execution, and we seem to be squeezing the sticks a little bit,” Cammalleri said. “I’d like to see us stick-handle a bit, handle the puck a little bit and make some tape to tape passes. That’s where it all starts, and we weren’t really doing that.”
Montreal veteran Hal Gill, who helped the Penguins win the 2009 Stanley Cup, received a warm ovation from the Consol Energy Center crowd while playing in 1,000th career game.
It was about as hospitable as things would get for the Canadiens, who went 2-0 in Pittsburgh’s new digs last year.
Pittsburgh controlled play from the outset, jumping on Montreal early.
“They were first on the pucks, and they’re dictating the pace of the game and that’s what we have to take back,” Gill said.