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Neal's solid play soon could pay off on scoresheet for Penguins

| Tuesday, May 21, 2013, 11:00 p.m.
Chaz Palla | Tribune-Review
The Penguins' James Neal plays against the Senators on Sunday, May 19, 2013, at Scotiabank Place in Ottawa.

OTTAWA — Evgeni Malkin predicted the future Tuesday.

He envisions James Neal busting out of his goal funk.

“Yeah,” Malkin said Tuesday after a practice at Scotiabank Place.

“Something big. Soon.”

Neal has gone five consecutive games without a goal in the Stanley Cup playoffs, where he has scored only once in seven contests.

He has contributed in other ways against the Ottawa Senators in Round 2.

In the Penguins' Game 3 loss, Neal, a winger, carried the puck across the blue line more than Malkin, a center. In their Game 1 win, he was credited with four hits.

In the series, which the Penguins lead, 2-1, with Game 4 on Wednesday night, Neal has attempted 16 shots.

“He's had about six scoring chances from the same spot that almost look identical to each other,” Penguins coach Dan Bylsma said. “Being in the area, having a good look at the net — pretty much in every game, he's had those chances to do that.

“It's hasn't gone in for him. Those are good looks there. He just needs one of those to go in.”

Neal is a more complete player than his reputation suggests, though his reputation as an elite sniping winger was earned by opening his NHL career with at least 20 goals in each of his five seasons.

That included 21 goals in 40 games this past regular season, which already was shortened because of the NHL lockout.

Neal is “great at scoring,” by the estimation of Malkin, who has averaged a goal in almost every other game in the NHL.

Still, he has scored a goal in only three of 21 games dating to the regular season, producing only five markers over that span. Neal missed 10 games, two in the playoffs, during that stretch.

The Penguins have won 18 of those contests, and Neal has factored in ways not always obvious to outsiders.

Jarome Iginla, a 500-goal scorer who joined the Penguins in March, said Neal has gone above and beyond to help his transition. That started with Neal offering — without Bylsma's knowledge — to switch back to the left side so that Iginla, a lifer on the right wing, would feel more comfortable in his Penguins debut.

Neal, 25, has not stopped serving as a tutor for Iginla, his elder by a decade.

During film sessions and on the ice in practices, Neal continues to point out intricacies of Bylsma's system, parts of which play favorably to opposite-handed shooters on the off-wing.

He also has shared the secrets to successfully communicating with Malkin, his regular center for the last two seasons.

Neal has quietly become a trusted member of the Penguins' nucleus, and not simply because the franchise has committed to him at a $5 million annual salary for the next five seasons.

He never ducks the media, often organizes team outings on road trips — and, notably, has not once taken issue with being rotated on and off the first power-play unit, even though he has scored 27 goals on the advantage the past two years.

For all those reasons, teammates including dressing-room leader Pascal Dupuis to captain Sidney Crosby had Neal's back Tuesday when conversation turned toward his current goal-scoring struggles.

Brooks Orpik, the Penguins' longest-tenured player, did similarly during the 2011 playoffs, when Neal scored only one goal — albeit an overtime winner — for a Penguins squad that played without Crosby and Malkin.

Neal said Tuesday he learned that postseason not to focus on his scoring, but instead on his overall play. That overall play is the reason for Malkin's sunny outlook for Neal.

“Last game, he used speed to beat (defenders) one on one,” Malkin said. “He looked comfortable, was hitting. When ‘Nealer' does that, (his) confidence is good.

“Forwards need confidence to score. He has confidence now. Soon he will score. Soon.”

Rob Rossi is a staff writer for Trib Total Media. Reach him at rrossi@tribweb.com or via Twitter @RobRossi_Trib.

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