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Penguins' Neal suspended five games for Marchand hit

| Monday, Dec. 9, 2013, 2:39 p.m.

James Neal's history is a real problem for the Penguins.

Neal, their third-leading goal scorer despite playing in only 16 games, was suspended for the next five by NHL Player Safety vice president Brendan Shanahan after a phone hearing Monday.

Shanahan said his review of Neal's knee to the head of Boston's Brad Marchand in a Penguins' loss Saturday night at TD Garden showed an act “more serious than simply not avoiding contact with a fallen player.”

Neal was assessed a minor penalty for kneeing by on-ice officials, but Shanahan's ruling will cost him $128,205.15, which will be donated to the Players' emergency assistance fund.

This is Neal's third suspension, a point made by Shanahan near the end of an explanatory video released to the NHL's official website.

“We cannot ignore the fact that Neal has previously been fined once and suspended twice in his six-year NHL career,” Shanahan said.

Shanahan, a former Hall of Fame player, told the Tribune-Review last month he believes cleaning up the way NHL hockey is played will be part of his overall legacy. This is his third season running the Player Safety department.

Neal is not considered a repeat offender — and thus ineligible for a harsher financial penalty — because his last supplemental discipline was not within 18 months.

Neal was not available for comment Monday. He can practice with the Penguins, but will not play again until Dec. 19 against Minnesota at Consol Energy Center. He will miss four games against divisional opponents.

Captain Sidney Crosby described the loss of Neal as “tough” but noted it was positive that returning center Evgeni Malkin scored a goal without Neal in the lineup Monday night.

Malkin, who had missed two previous games with a lower-body injury, has produced all but 14 of his 38 points in 15 games Neal played after returning to the lineup Nov. 9. Eight of Malkin's 10 multipoint performances are with Neal as his regular right winger.

“There's no doubt they're good together,” Crosby said.

“Both (are) really good players, but when they don't have each other they're capable of making plays, too.”

Neal disappointed general manager Ray Shero and coach Dan Bylsma on Saturday night. Both men were unhappy with Neal's unapologetic public response — “I guess I need to avoid him” — to kneeing Marchand, arguably the most disliked opposing player among Penguins and the one who had boarded Neal during Game 1 of the Eastern Conference final last postseason.

Still, Neal's actions did not sit well with the Penguins, who three years ago famously told former winger Matt Cooke he would no longer be welcome with the organization unless he changed on-ice behavior that led to five suspensions. Cooke, during his final two seasons with the Penguins, never required supplemental discipline for an illegal hit after working with Bylsma during the 2011 offseason.

Neal's knee to Marchand on Saturday night preceded by seconds Boston's Shawn Thornton jumping the Penguins' Brooks Orpik, who is out indefinitely with a concussion. Thornton's in-person hearing with Shanahan was not scheduled as of Monday afternoon.

Bylsma, on Saturday night, tersely noted that Neal “didn't make any attempt to get out of the way.” He reiterated that stance following the Penguins' 2-1 victory on Monday night.

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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