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Penguins winger Neal refining game, attitude

| Thursday, Dec. 19, 2013, 12:01 a.m.
Chaz Palla | Tribune-Review
The Penguins' James Neal plays againt the Sharks on Dec. 5, 2013, at Consol Energy Center.

NEW YORK — James Neal was changing his game. He finally can continue that Thursday night.

Neal's five-game suspension is over, and he will play for the Penguins against Minnesota at Consol Energy Center.

“I've only played in 16 games this year,” Neal said after a post-practice workout at Madison Square Garden on Wednesday.

Actually, only 15 of those games featured him playing more than two shifts. In those, he produced 10 goals and as many assists — the best start to his six-season career, Neal said.

That assessment was not based on statistics, which had him on pace for 42 goals and 84 points. Neal, a right winger, was more proud of improved play without the puck.

He had worked on different methods for freeing himself from defenders, and it showed in his 5.6 shots attempted per game. He was at 4.4 last season.

He also had worked on his defensive positioning, and that, coach Dan Bylsma said, showed better on video than in Neal's six credited takeaways. Neal he was credited with only 11 in 40 games last season.

Neal suspects his early-season offensive production — following 61 goals in 120 previous games — pushed him into the conversations about Olympic candidates among Team Canada's executive committee.

However, he was — and is — hoping to a secure a roster spot by showing a more complete game than the one befitting his sniper reputation.

“I feel I can do different things, that I have different aspects to my game,” Neal said. “The stuff away from the puck, even what you're doing to prepare before and after games, all goes into helping you get the chances and have the success you're striving for.”

Neal also is striving to change the public perception that he is a dirty player and distinguish the line between aggressive and aggression that he has crossed more than once. He has served three suspensions and once paid a fine for actions deemed unsuitable by NHL Player Safety.

Bylsma and general manager Ray Shero, while insisting Neal's situation is not like the one faced by former winger Matt Cooke, have said Neal must alter his on-ice behavior.

Cooke, by coincidence, returns to Pittsburgh with Minnesota on Thursday night.

Cooke has not faced supplemental discipline from the NHL since spending summer 2011 learning new ways to hit by watching more than 20 hours of video with Bylsma.

The Penguins — forget the NHL — let Cooke know then that they would not tolerate more egregious on-ice behavior.

The Penguins have not had that stern of a conversation with Neal, who reiterated Wednesday that he is aware he must better control his emotions.

Sporting a cut above his left eye from a high-sticking incident during a recent practice, Neal stressed that moving on from kneeing Brad Marchand in the head is the best way he can help himself and a Penguins squad without seven regulars, including center Evgeni Malkin (left leg) and winger Beau Bennett (broken wrist).

“I felt like I was playing the best hockey of my career in the 16 games I played in,” Neal said. “That made it even tougher to sit out.

“I just want to come back with the same approach.”

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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