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Penguins? James Neal visualizes, realizes goals

WINNIPEG, Manitoba -- There is that moment for any NHL goal-scorer, the moment the puck reaches the stick blade, the moment the mind essentially must be made up between two stark options:

A. I'm going to score.

B. I'm not going to score.

There are all kinds of numbers to support the case that the Penguins' James Neal has emerged this season into a legitimate sniper, not least of which is that his 20 goals is one off the league-leading 21 by the New York Rangers' Marian Gaborik.

But to fully understand why, it's probably best in Neal's case to go to that moment.

"When I'm playing with that confidence, playing with that attitude, you can visualize," Neal said late Friday night at MTS Centre after that 20th goal set off the Penguins' 4-1 victory over the Winnipeg Jets. "When you get the puck, you know exactly where you want to put it. You do it before the game, too. I try to visualize all different kinds of shots, angles, you name it."

And they all go in?

"That's the thing," he added with a grin. "And once I have that visualization when I'm on the ice, I just try to get the shot off quickly."

Rewind to his goal Friday, which broke a 1-1 tie 22 seconds into the third period: Evgeni Malkin had fallen to the ice near the puck at the bottom of the Jets' left circle. The play probably looked lost to most, but Neal held his ground between the hashes, stick on the ice, skates forward, ready to shoot.

Sure enough ...

"Geno made a great pass," Neal said. "He's an incredible player."

Malkin somehow yanked the puck back to Neal, and, one visualization later, Neal wired a shot past the blocker side of goaltender Ondrej Pavelec. The latter was part of it, too: The Penguins had discussed going after Pavelec's blocker before the game, and they'd exploit it again later on a Pascal Dupuis rush.

Neal's numbers are rapidly graduating from surprising to superb:

• His 10 power-play goals lead the NHL.

• He leads the league with 141 shots -- four per game -- and ranks fourth with 53 missed shots, both underscoring how often he has used his powerful skating to get open.

• He has scored in 17 of the Penguins' 35 games and produced a point in 26, including his current seven-game streak. He doesn't have a hat trick, so it's been a steady flow.

• Neal has been charged with only seven giveaways, among the fewest on the team -- checking-line center Joe Vitale has eight in less than half the ice time -- an especially impressive figure for a player who possesses the puck so much.

Add that up, and Neal, just three months removed from his 24th birthday, is on pace for 47 goals.

That's the stuff of stars -- certainly stuff that should earn him a place in the NHL All-Star Game next month in Ottawa -- and he doesn't seem to mind visualizing all that, either.

"I just want to keep going," Neal said. "I've gotten here to the Christmas break like this, and it's really important to go out and keep playing this way. I'm not worried about pressure or anything like that. I know there will be expectations. I'm OK with that."

Coach Dan Bylsma is effusive in his praise of Neal, his character and how he has fit in with the Penguins. But that was the case even when Neal struggled last season with two goals in as many months after general manager Ray Shero acquired him from the Dallas Stars in February.

"James played well that whole time, was all over the puck, created chances ... the shots just didn't go in," Bylsma said. "Now they are. And maybe that started in Vancouver."

That's how Neal feels. The Penguins' first goal of the season, in their opening victory over the Canucks, was a cheesy, bad-angle bank shot that Neal ricocheted off Roberto Luongo's pads.

"I hate to say it, but I feel like it started there," Neal said. "Ever since that goal, I've felt like the bounces were going to go my way. That's brought confidence, and confidence is such a huge part of this game."

Helps with all those imaginary goals, too.

Additional Information:

From the left

James Neal is on pace for 47 goals. Here are the most goals by a left winger in a season for the Penguins:

Kevin Stevens , 1992-93: 55

Kevin Stevens , 1991-92: 54

Mario Lemieux ,* 1996-97: 50

Lowell MacDonald , 1973-74: 43

Kevin Stevens , 1993-94: 41

Warren Young , 1984-85: 40

Kevin Stevens , 1990-91: 40

*This was Lemieux's only full season at left wing, on the 'Super Line' with Ron Francis and Jaromir Jagr

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