Penguins' James Neal visualizes, realizes goals
WINNIPEG, Manitoba -- There is that moment for any NHL goal-scorer, the moment the puck reaches the stick blade, the moment the mind essentially must be made up between two stark options:
A. I'm going to score.
B. I'm not going to score.
There are all kinds of numbers to support the case that the Penguins' James Neal has emerged this season into a legitimate sniper, not least of which is that his 20 goals is one off the league-leading 21 by the New York Rangers' Marian Gaborik.
But to fully understand why, it's probably best in Neal's case to go to that moment.
"When I'm playing with that confidence, playing with that attitude, you can visualize," Neal said late Friday night at MTS Centre after that 20th goal set off the Penguins' 4-1 victory over the Winnipeg Jets. "When you get the puck, you know exactly where you want to put it. You do it before the game, too. I try to visualize all different kinds of shots, angles, you name it."
And they all go in?
"That's the thing," he added with a grin. "And once I have that visualization when I'm on the ice, I just try to get the shot off quickly."
Rewind to his goal Friday, which broke a 1-1 tie 22 seconds into the third period: Evgeni Malkin had fallen to the ice near the puck at the bottom of the Jets' left circle. The play probably looked lost to most, but Neal held his ground between the hashes, stick on the ice, skates forward, ready to shoot.
Sure enough ...
"Geno made a great pass," Neal said. "He's an incredible player."
Malkin somehow yanked the puck back to Neal, and, one visualization later, Neal wired a shot past the blocker side of goaltender Ondrej Pavelec. The latter was part of it, too: The Penguins had discussed going after Pavelec's blocker before the game, and they'd exploit it again later on a Pascal Dupuis rush.
Neal's numbers are rapidly graduating from surprising to superb:
• His 10 power-play goals lead the NHL.
• He leads the league with 141 shots -- four per game -- and ranks fourth with 53 missed shots, both underscoring how often he has used his powerful skating to get open.
• He has scored in 17 of the Penguins' 35 games and produced a point in 26, including his current seven-game streak. He doesn't have a hat trick, so it's been a steady flow.
• Neal has been charged with only seven giveaways, among the fewest on the team -- checking-line center Joe Vitale has eight in less than half the ice time -- an especially impressive figure for a player who possesses the puck so much.
Add that up, and Neal, just three months removed from his 24th birthday, is on pace for 47 goals.
That's the stuff of stars -- certainly stuff that should earn him a place in the NHL All-Star Game next month in Ottawa -- and he doesn't seem to mind visualizing all that, either.
"I just want to keep going," Neal said. "I've gotten here to the Christmas break like this, and it's really important to go out and keep playing this way. I'm not worried about pressure or anything like that. I know there will be expectations. I'm OK with that."
Coach Dan Bylsma is effusive in his praise of Neal, his character and how he has fit in with the Penguins. But that was the case even when Neal struggled last season with two goals in as many months after general manager Ray Shero acquired him from the Dallas Stars in February.
"James played well that whole time, was all over the puck, created chances ... the shots just didn't go in," Bylsma said. "Now they are. And maybe that started in Vancouver."
That's how Neal feels. The Penguins' first goal of the season, in their opening victory over the Canucks, was a cheesy, bad-angle bank shot that Neal ricocheted off Roberto Luongo's pads.
"I hate to say it, but I feel like it started there," Neal said. "Ever since that goal, I've felt like the bounces were going to go my way. That's brought confidence, and confidence is such a huge part of this game."
Helps with all those imaginary goals, too.Additional Information:
From the left
James Neal is on pace for 47 goals. Here are the most goals by a left winger in a season for the Penguins:
Kevin Stevens , 1992-93: 55
Kevin Stevens , 1991-92: 54
Mario Lemieux ,* 1996-97: 50
Lowell MacDonald , 1973-74: 43
Kevin Stevens , 1993-94: 41
Warren Young , 1984-85: 40
Kevin Stevens , 1990-91: 40
*This was Lemieux's only full season at left wing, on the 'Super Line' with Ron Francis and Jaromir Jagr
Show commenting policy
TribLive commenting policy
You are solely responsible for your comments and by using TribLive.com you agree to our Terms of Service.
We moderate comments. Our goal is to provide substantive commentary for a general readership. By screening submissions, we provide a space where readers can share intelligent and informed commentary that enhances the quality of our news and information.
While most comments will be posted if they are on-topic and not abusive, moderating decisions are subjective. We will make them as carefully and consistently as we can. Because of the volume of reader comments, we cannot review individual moderation decisions with readers.
We value thoughtful comments representing a range of views that make their point quickly and politely. We make an effort to protect discussions from repeated comments either by the same reader or different readers.
We follow the same standards for taste as the daily newspaper. A few things we won't tolerate: personal attacks, obscenity, vulgarity, profanity (including expletives and letters followed by dashes), commercial promotion, impersonations, incoherence, proselytizing and SHOUTING. Don't include URLs to Web sites.
We do not edit comments. They are either approved or deleted. We reserve the right to edit a comment that is quoted or excerpted in an article. In this case, we may fix spelling and punctuation.
We welcome strong opinions and criticism of our work, but we don't want comments to become bogged down with discussions of our policies and we will moderate accordingly.
We appreciate it when readers and people quoted in articles or blog posts point out errors of fact or emphasis and will investigate all assertions. But these suggestions should be sent via e-mail. To avoid distracting other readers, we won't publish comments that suggest a correction. Instead, corrections will be made in a blog post or in an article.
- Russian winger Plotnikov could join Penguins in August
- Ex-teammates say Kessel unfairly criticized
- New Penguin Kessel’s shot is what makes him special
- Penguins’ Kessel ‘thrilled’ with chance to play with Crosby, Malkin
- Hurricanes owner rips Rutherford, Penguins
- Penguins get their man in making trade with Toronto for Kessel
- Defenseman Martin’s agent planning meeting with Penguins at draft
- Penguins sign defensive prospect
- Starkey: Rutherford hits jackpot with Kessel
- Penguins notebook: Rutherford proves savvy in deal
- Starkey: Kessel worth Penguins’ inquiry