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Neal's booming shot humbles NHL goalies

| Saturday, Feb. 16, 2013, 7:09 p.m.
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James Neal of the Penguins avoids Jacob Josefson of the New Jersey Devils during the third period on Feb. 10, 2013 at the CONSOL Energy Center. Getty Images file

BUFFALO, N.Y. — There once was a time, Penguins right wing James Neal insisted, that his shot was a weakness in his game. He says so with a straight face.

Neal's career was forever altered during his first NHL training camp in Dallas, when he was blown away by the ability of NHL players to fire the puck.

So he started working.

Seven years later, that work may have produced the NHL's best shot.

“I never had a good shot at all growing up,” Neal said. “Never had a good shot in juniors.”

Neal enters Sunday's game in Buffalo — he inked a six-year, $30 million contract extension in Buffalo one year ago Tuesday — tied for the league lead with 11 goals and has everyone talking about his shooting skills.

“I still remember that first camp in Dallas,” Neal said. “I was watching Billy Guerin and Jason Arnott shoot the puck. Just the way the puck came off their sticks was such an eye-opener for me. I knew that I had to learn to shoot the puck like that to stay in the league. Those guys could score from anywhere.”

Now, Neal can say the same of himself. He's also receiving impressive comparisons.

“There's only one guy that his shot reminds me of,” said assistant coach Tony Granato, who played with the likes of Wayne Gretzky and Luc Robitaille while coaching some other special players in Colorado.

“In terms of how the puck comes off the stick, it reminds me of Joe Sakic. Just the way the puck snaps off his stick, the way he finds those scoring areas, he reminds me of Joe.”

Part of Neal's success is his unpredictability.

Of his 11 goals this season, six have come on wrist shots, three on one-timers, one on a deflection and one on a backhand shot. He has recorded five goals from the right circle, three from the goal mouth, two from the left circle and one from the slot.

He really has become a player who scores from anywhere.

“It's one of the toughest shots I've had to face,” Penguins goalie Tomas Vokoun said. “It is hard and heavy and accurate. But it's more than that. He has the ability to deceive a goaltender. It's a very deceptive shot, kind of like (Carolina forward Alex) Semin's. You just don't always know where it's going.”

Lately, those shots have been going into the net.

After starting his career with the Penguins in disappointing fashion with just two goals in 27 games during the 2010-11 season following a trade from Dallas, Neal scored 40 goals last season.

It has become clear that last season was no fluke; Neal has 11 goals in 15 games. He has scored two more goals than the combined totals of Sidney Crosby (six) and Evgeni Malkin (three).

“When you're talking about Nealer,” Penguins goalie Marc-Andre Fleury said, “it's all about the release. Just a great release. It makes it so hard for goaltenders to deal with because he gets rid of it so quickly.”

Granato chuckled when speaking of a few goals Neal has recently scored. In particular, Granato was astounded by Neal's goal against New Jersey goaltender Johan Hedberg last Sunday. Hedberg read Crosby's pass to Neal perfectly, and he appeared in position to make the save.

“And it didn't matter,” Granato said. “The puck came in and out of the net so fast. Hedberg read it beautifully and was playing great that night, and he still didn't have a chance. That's just the kind of shot James has.”

If there is one trend with Neal's shot, it is his preference for firing at a goaltender's glove side. He has gone in that direction seven times this season.

“More and more, that's my favorite,” he said.

But as he proved in Winnipeg against goaltender Ondrej Pavelec, he can score from anywhere to any portion of the net. Neal fired a one-timer past Pavelec on Friday night. The goaltender was in perfect position, but he wasn't ready for the Neal blast that went between his legs.

“Confidence is a great thing,” Granato said. “And he's got it right now. I just hope he keeps this going. It's been fun to watch.”

Neal always will be in the shadow of Crosby and Malkin. But his reputation is growing around the league.

“That team is full of stars,” Buffalo winger Tyler Ennis said. “So maybe he does (get overlooked) a little. But, I mean, everyone knows how great he is.”

Josh Yohe is a staff writer for Trib Total Media. Reach him at jyohe@tribweb.com or via Twitter @JoshYohe_Trib.

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