Penguins winger Neal working on hitting the net more frequently
By Rob Rossi
Published: Sunday, Feb. 2, 2014, 9:42 p.m.
GLENDALE, Ariz. — James Neal knows the solution to his scoring slump.
Neal attempted 10 shots. The Coyotes blocked four, and Neal misfired on five.
Neal has scored 17 goals in 34 games — a rate that ranks eighth in the NHL — but he is without a goal in his past eight contests, and the Penguins have suffered three of their 15 regulation losses during his funk.
Neal is not the Penguins' best player, a designation that belongs to captain Sidney Crosby, the NHL's scoring leader.
Neal is not the Penguins' most dynamic player, a designation that belongs to center Evgeni Malkin, who has 38 assists in only 44 games.
Neal is, arguably, the biggest offensive difference-maker for the Penguins.
The past three postseasons have proven that working theory. The Penguins are 7-13 in playoff games in which Neal has not scored.
As with any elite sniper, for Neal it is all about taking the shots — and Neal said his past two games marked improvement in that area. He attempted 15 shots combined in games at Los Angeles and Phoenix.
However, only two of those shots were on net.
A left-handed shooter, Neal excels at beating goalies from awkward angles, especially near the boards on the right side.
Against the Coyotes in the first period, linemate Jussi Jokinen set up Neal for one of those attempts. Neal whipped a puck in the general direction of Phoenix goalie Mike Smith, but a save was not required because of errant shot placement.
Neal said he would try that shot again.
“You just need to go back to getting the puck in, maybe being a little bit more physical and maybe going to different areas,” Neal said. “When you're playing at the top of your game and feeling good each night, sometimes you can get a little complacent — and then when you start not playing well, it's more noticeable.”
Coaches noticed Neal more in the Penguins' win at Los Angeles on Thursday night. He had three of five shot attempts blocked, but Neal also was credited with four hits.
He had six hits on the Penguins' two-game West Coast trip.
Coach Dan Bylsma said he wants to see more of that aggressive, attacking play from all of his players in the final three games before the NHL's Olympic break. The Penguins begin that stretch Monday night against Ottawa at Consol Energy Center.
Bylsma also wants to see continued puck possession — something Jokinen, Malkin and Neal excelled at on the road trip.
“Some of our focus about how we play is how we play with the puck, and we need to continue to play better with the puck,” Bylsma said. “The last two games, we've done that to a large degree.
“We have to be able to play a patient game, not be taking chances away from the play or with the puck. That's been a focus of our team, not just James.”
The Penguins have played the past 16 games without right winger Pascal Dupuis (torn right ACL). His absence has taken the top line, which features Canadian Olympians Crosby and winger Chris Kunitz, down a peg.
Still, Neal and Jokinen said, the second line has not routinely seen opposition's top defense pairing or checking forwards. Until then, the Penguins should expect big things from the second line.
Neal knows he is a big part of that line turning the consistent possession it has shown the past two games into results.
“I'm not too worried about it,” Neal said. “The chemistry is there. We just need to keep it going, because I like the way our line has been playing.
“Again, I just need to start putting the puck on net.”
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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