Penguins? Neal shoots low, aims high
ST. PAUL, Minn. — James Neal's formula for finding the back of the net seems glaringly obvious: Shooting low is good, shooting high bad.
In the Penguins' eight games, he has six goals — most on the team and one behind NHL leader Phil Kessel of Toronto — and all have come on low shots. His shooting percentage is an outstanding 18.8.
After being acquired from Dallas at the trade deadline last season, he scored just two goals in 27 games while shooting almost exclusively high. His shooting percentage was 2.7, a figure that would make a stay-at-home defenseman cringe, much less a first-line left winger.
Still, Neal insists no change in his approach was made, and no change is forthcoming.
"Nothing to it at all," he said Tuesday in the visitors' locker room at Xcel Energy Center before the Penguins' 4-2 victory over Minnesota. "I've scored my goals low, but I'm still taking my high shots. I'd say 90 percent of the shots I'm taking are still high."
It's simply what comes naturally, he said.
"It's just the way it comes off my stick. I'm not sure why. Some guys have a good shot to the five-hole, some guys have it for low on the blocker side. I find that mine is high glove side."
Fellow forward Matt Cooke, seated at the next stall, playfully interjected, "Hey, don't give out all your secrets."
Neal laughed and completed his thought.
"Honestly, I just go where the opportunity is," he said. "On these goals, the opportunities have been low."
Even though Neal's successful shots all have been along ice level, there has been much variety otherwise: In Vancouver, he stuffed a severe-angle shot between Roberto Luongo's pads. Against Washington, he one-timed a cross-ice feed from the right dot before Tomas Vokoun could move across his crease. Tuesday, he collected a loose puck in the neutral zone, went full steam over the Minnesota blue line on a two-on-one and whipped a wrister from the left hash past goaltender Niklas Backstrom.
To Penguins coach Dan Bylsma, Neal's prowess has been much more about skating — he has exceptional speed for someone 6-foot-2, 208 pounds — than shot placement.
"What James brings that's most dangerous is his ability to skate and still shoot the puck hard," Bylsma said. "He's gotten his goals a lot of different ways, and I think that's because he's put his speed into his shot. It doesn't matter if it's going high glove or wherever. It's about the skating."
Bylsma described the goal Tuesday, one in which Backstrom barely budged, "all skating and release, a goal-scorer's quick shot."
He also cited a play Monday in Winnipeg, where Neal burst into the Jets' slot for a wrist shot that clanged off the post.
"Same thing. Just didn't go in."
This flourish isn't likely to last. For one, his current pace is for 60 goals. For another, Neal has a history of being a strong starter with 19 goals in his past 32 October games, but he never has topped 27 in a season, that coming in 2009-10 with the Stars.
In the meantime, Neal virtually is certain to raise expectations.
"That's all right, as long as the team is winning," he said. "I'll do everything I can to help the team win. If it means putting the puck in the net, that's part of the game, too."
3 TO WATCH
Opposing players to keep an eye on over the next week:
PK Subban, Canadiens, D
He already is a minus-5 after finishing last season at minus-8.
Petr Sykora, Devils, RW
After a year away from NHL, he is off to a slow start (no goals).
Al Montoya, Islanders, G
A .953 save percentage through three games has given him go-to status.
Developments from around the NHL:
The Blue Jackets can't shop C Derrick Brassard, who is now on the first line because of C Jeff Carter's injury. Aaron Portzline, Columbus Dispatch
An infusion of younger players has limited the ice time of frustrated Flyers LW Scott Hartnell, who holds a "no movement" clause in his contract. Frank Seravalli, Philadelphia Daily News
Colorado's impending restricted free agents, C Matt Duchene and D Erik Johnson, might not have their contracts renegotiated until this summer. Bob McKenzie, TSN
Penguins D Zbynek Michalek shares thoughts on...
Going 1-on-1 with elite scorers:
"That's my job. That's why I came here, to be a defensive defenseman against those guys like (Capitals LW Alex Ovechkin)."
His strategy against Ovechkin:
"I'm not going to overwhelm anyone physically. I try to play a good positioning game, take away his options and keep him to the outside. I can't let him make those quick little plays in our zone."
His stick work in the D-zone:
"If you knock the puck away from a guy, there is nothing he can do. Gap starts mostly with skating ... then you can use your stick as much as possible."