Neal gets hat trick, Crosby scores in Penguins' victory
By Rob Rossi
Published: Sunday, Dec. 29, 2013, 8:42 p.m.
COLUMBUS, Ohio — Dan Bylsma knows the numbers are very good.
He also knows why that is for a Penguins' power play that over the calendar year is clicking at 25.2 percent in the regular season.
“The difference the last two seasons is our ability to retrieve pucks — and when you look at (Nos.) 14 and 18, they are a big, huge part of that,” Bylsma said after the Penguins' 5-3 victory over Columbus on Sunday night at Nationwide Arena.
The Penguins went 3 for 6 on the power play.
No. 14 is left winger Chris Kunitz, whose 21st goal — and 10th on the power play — gave the Penguins a 4-2 lead with about seven minutes remaining in regulation.
No. 18 is right winger James Neal, who scored two of his three goals on the power play.
Neal has 14 goals in 21 games, and with five points against the Blue Jackets, he is at 30 overall.
Kunitz, with three points against the Blue Jackets, pushed his total to 42 — second-best among Penguins, and good for the top 10 in the NHL.
Both players are Canadian. Each has shown himself well — Kunitz over the past four seasons, Neal sparingly in games missed by regular center Evgeni Malkin — when flanking captain Sidney Crosby.
Team Canada is finalizing its roster for the upcoming Winter Olympics, and ...
“It's interesting, and it'll be a hot debate here over the next little while,” said Crosby, Team Canada's likely captain. “I'm glad we're teammates here. I'll let everyone else worry about that.”
Neal and Kunitz played together two seasons ago, with Malkin as their center. They combined for 66 goals in 2011-12.
Tampa Bay general manager Steve Yzerman is Team Canada's executive director, and Detroit's Mike Babcock is the coach. Where those men stand regarding the Olympic candidacies of Kunitz and Neal is of some interest to Bylsma, who will coach the United States.
After all, Bylsma acknowledged Sunday night there is little an opposing penalty kill can do when Crosby has the advantage of working with Kunitz and Neal on the power play.
Consider the sequence upon which Kunitz scored the Penguins' decisive fourth goal against Columbus about two minutes after Crosby's 22nd marker had broken a 2-2 tie.
“We drew up a play there,” Bylsma said. “You have it drawn up one way, and Sid improvises.
“The play is into Neal there, but (the puck) pops out to Sid, and it's designed for him to step out and shoot it, and he just finds another lane and seam to go back to ‘Kuni' with ‘Nealer' going to the net.
“I'm not sure you can defend it or draw (a penalty-kill design) up for them when it's going in like that.”
Neal's 16 power-play goals the past two seasons are second to Kunitz's 19 among Penguins players. They have combined to score 44.9 percent (35 of 78) of their squad's power-play goals since the NHL returned from the lockout in January.
The Penguins have averaged 3.21 goals in 90 games over that span, and that is with Malkin having missed 27 games, or 30 percent of the schedule.
Crosby has produced 17 of his NHL-leading 58 points in 10 games missed by Malkin this season. The Penguins are 8-2-0 in those contests.
“Well, there's only one puck,” Neal said, smiling. “Those guys are so skilled. On any given night, one of them is going to step up. That's what makes our team so good.”
Rob Rossi is a staff writer for Trib Total Media. Reach him at email@example.com or via Twitter @RobRossi_Trib.
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