Kovacevic: Neal sees playoffs as 'second chance'
“Look around this room,” James Neal was saying while doing exactly that up in Winnipeg late last week. It was a tight locker room, too. A player could look his farthest teammate right in the pupils.
“If you look at Sid, Geno, Flower, Brooksie, you know how bad those guys want it,” Neal continued. “But at the same time ...”
He'd been gazing down at his unlaced skates as he spoke just after a practice but then looked up. Right in the pupils.
“Those guys have been there. They've tasted it. I haven't tasted it.”
He meant champagne from Lord Stanley's Cup, of course. Sidney Crosby, Evgeni Malkin, Marc-Andre Fleury and Brooks Orpik all took their turns a half-decade ago in another cramped quarters at old Joe Louis Arena.
But there was more to Neal's story. An asterisk. And really, there always seems to be one of those for this compelling but often confounding talent.
The script's familiar by now: He's been suspended three times for dirty hits, most recently five games in December for ramming his knee into the head of the Bruins' Brad Marchand. All of it's been deserved. He's also had three other occasions in which he might have wriggled off the hook, most recently a wrist-slap $5,000 fine for a cross-check to the head of the Red Wings' Luke Glendening.
What's worse, that script finds new authors by the day.
Paul Stewart, the former NHL referee, buzzed the hockey world last month with a scathing article about Neal. Among the passages: “James Neal is not my type of player. He has been involved in multiple incidents, showing reckless disregard for the safety of fellow players. … For all of Neal's talent, he is at risk of starting to cost his team more than he gives.”
Then, two weeks ago, someone at the Penguins' offices had the tone-deaf idea — amid all this fuss — to host an #AskNeal session on Twitter. And predictably, at least for anyone with a clue about social media, Flyers fans pounced with the usual prehistoric discourse, then soon had tag-team company from across the continent.
One tweet asked: “James, do you get the biggest thrill out of kneeing someone in the head or cross-checking them in the head?”
Another: “If you opened a bar, how cheap would your shots be?”
Neal has read a lot of the above, probably too much judging by the slight nod when I brought it up.
“I mean, it happens,” he said of the criticism. “You definitely don't make it easy on yourself when you're getting fined or suspended. I'm sure the refs are looking for you a little more, too. At the same time, you can't let that stuff bother you. I feel better about my game now.”
It hurts. It's easy to see. This isn't some dummy, some cement-head who relishes the role of villain.
Bottom line, though: He has let the Penguins down, from the brass to the locker room to the fans. He's disappointed time and again.
“James plays the game hard, and his emotions get the best of him at times,” old friend Matt Cooke was saying from Minnesota over the weekend. “But as long as he can learn to channel that in the right direction, it won't be a bad thing. Obviously, he's got to be careful now. But he knows where he's at. He knows what he's doing. He's a big boy.”
Cooke knows. That's how he went from a temporary persona non grata in Pittsburgh to a $7.5 million free-agent deal with the Wild.
Neal has work ahead. But to his credit, he seems to get that. In our interview, he never stopped going headfirst on a topic he seldom discusses.
On his suspendable hits: “Things happen quickly out there. It's hard to describe. But I know I'm responsible. I have to make better decisions.”
On his season, which also has included 24 goals: “It definitely hasn't been the easiest year. But I'm excited for the playoffs. It's a chance to turn things around. That's how it feels right now, like a second chance.”
On how he might react to the playoffs' higher-octane emotion: “That starts now. You start zoning in on the type of hockey you need to be playing in the playoffs. You start pushing harder, you focus on being in those tougher areas of the ice to get goals. And yeah, you have to be more disciplined. There's more happening around you, more after the whistle, more little things that might … tick you off.”
It's fun to imagine he pictured, oh, Scott Hartnell.
On whether he can resist the Hartnells of the world: “I've had to work on staying out of things like that over the past year, the past few months, especially. I'm still growing and learning as a player. It's all part of the journey, I guess. But going into playoffs, like I said … that's a chance to show that. And to become a better player, really.”
Right back in the pupils.