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Kovacevic: Neal is the real (two-way) deal

| Sunday, Jan. 27, 2013, 10:39 p.m.

OTTAWA - Five games into this 48-yard dash of an NHL season, these Penguins remain very much a team trying to find itself.

They're talented, sure.

But they're scoring only sporadically, turning over the puck at a troubling rate, stumbling with power-play setups, wondering what if anything is there with some of these fringe players, and - let's come right out and say it - still waiting for the best they'll surely end up getting from Sidney Crosby and Evgeni Malkin.

Oh, they've both been good, even with Malkin's maddening mismanagement of the puck. But if they're only good, then the offense won't often fare much better than the five goals it has squeezed out in the past three games.

As Crosby worded it, perhaps delicately, after this 2-1 shootout win over the Senators, "I think it's still a work in progress."

Right. Let's go with that for now: Work in progress.

Here's what isn't: James Neal.

In fact, I'd venture to say that, if all of the Penguins were performing at the same pace and with the same productivity as big No. 18, this team would have made a lot more out of that season-opening scorching of Philadelphia and New York than simply salvaging a trip.

The guy is just flying right now.

Forget the team-high four goals, even his one-timed beauty from the right circle for the Penguins' lone regulation score Sunday.

Forget the shootout backhander he shoved through Ottawa's Craig Anderson, fitting right in with Crosby and Evgeni Malkin in that 3-for-3 slam dunk.

Forget the other numbers, too, notably the wickedly misleading zero assists and minus-4 rating. When Malkin resumes working to get open rather than pouting when a pass doesn't come his way - as he did several times Sunday - all of that will improve.

Forget it all about Neal, really, except what your eyes tell you.

Watch how he's scoring from all points of the rink, unlike any Penguins winger since the prime-time Alexei Kovalev. He's done it from the power-play point (handling that duty better than a lot of us thought he might), he's done it from behind Malkin on that faceoff play (nearly pulled it off again Sunday), and he's done it from in tight.

"James is dangerous from anywhere," Bylsma said. "That goal tonight, he gets a sliver of an opportunity to get that shot off. I think you could teach a lesson with getting open and releasing just from what we've seen this year from James."

Watch how he backchecks. And again, forget plus-minus, hockey's dumbest stat.

Some forwards retreat with a huff, as if mopping the floors after making a five-course meal. Not Neal. He did it last year, but he's even better now, more aware, more in the flow. In this game especially, he was back as a normal course of his skating, as if one led to the other.

As if he actually likes it.

"James was backtracking the puck all night," Bylsma said.

Watch how he finishes checks. His five hits Sunday matched Craig Adams' team high.

"Worked hard away from the puck, too," Bylsma continued.

To hear Neal tell it, all of that string is intertwined.

"That's the way we've got to play as a team," he said at his stall. "Look, we're going to have chances if we're good in our zone. We have to know that. If we take care of the puck back there, we can jump the other way. It's got to be the first thing we think about. Really does."

He's right, of course. But it's still neat that such maturity comes not only from a 25-year-old but also from a 40-goal guy.

Let's face it: How often have you seen someone score a ton, then double down on their defensive game?

The way it usually unfolds, said sniper starts cheating, content to let others do the grunt work. That's true from the NHL to mites and midgets.

Neal's still the grunt, but he's still getting the goals.

It won't be 40 again, not with this schedule. But no one would see this season as anything other than a significant step forward should he keep raising his all-around bar like this.

What would Neal consider such a step?

"To me, I feel like my next level is just a constant learning process of being with players like Sid and Geno. That helps, hopefully, not only to get to the next level faster but to want to be there. When you're around those guys every day, playing with them ... you enjoy it, you know?"

Yeah, it shows.

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