PITTSBURGH (93-7 The FAN) — James Neal is playing the type of hockey the Penguins were hoping for when he was acquired in a trade with Dallas last season.
The Penguins sent Alex Goligoski to the Stars while Neal was the headliner of a deal that also brought defenseman Matt Niskanen to Pittsburgh. Neal arrived with 39 points in 59 games in Dallas, including 21 goals — already the third straight 20-goal season of his young career.
Those numbers didn’t translate with the Penguins, though. At least not immediately, as he scored just one goal in 20 regular season games and then one in the first round of the Stanley Cup playoffs against Tampa Bay.
He was labeled by many as a trade deadline bust, but has since showed the goal scoring prowess he was highly sought after for.
Neal has nine goals, 14 points in 15 games so far this season. He led the NHL with 64 shots going into Thursday night’s games.
What’s more, he’s been a steady, consistent player for the Penguins as they continue to battle through injuries to start the season — a problem he couldn’t aid last year.
“Speed is a big factor for James’ game, whether it’s on the forecheck, hunting pucks down, pursuing pucks in the offensive zone – those things he’s done extremely well,” Penguins head coach Dan Bylsma said. “It’s led to more opportunities with the puck for him and his line. We see him get shots on the rush. He’s good at doing that. I think he’s also gotten shots in rebound areas, offensive play.”
Neal has blended well on a line with Evgeni Malkin and Steve Sullivan. He’s also blended on the power play, where he has three goals on a unit much improved from last season.
“I think he’s more of a factor shooting on the power play both as a net-front and the low area,” Bylsma said. “He’s been able to do it. A lot of it comes from his skating ability, pursuit of the puck and finding those areas after we’ve gotten the puck. It’s not just him getting a shot off on the rush, which we’ve seen him do a lot last year as well.”
Neal credits a lot of his success to his teammates, who he says have made scoring easier by setting him up with quality chances.
“When you’re putting yourself in places to get the puck on net and you’re getting the puck from your linemates, you’re going to get a lot of shots,” Neal told the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette.
And now he faces his old team, which has found a great deal of success to start the year as well. The Stars have an NHL-best 22 points with a 11-3-0 record. They’re third in the league in goals per game at 3.1 and feature winger Loui Eriksson, who is one goal behind Neal with eight and two points ahead of Neal with 16.
Some more of Neal’s current production could help snap a four-game Dallas winning streak and put the Penguins back on top of the NHL standings.
“Playing my old team, I was in Dallas for three years,” Neal said. “I’m sure it will be a little weird. It’s a good challenge for us because they’re playing really well. ”