Mario Lemieux was the first to say congratulations. He met Penguins winger James Neal in the team room Friday night after a 6-2 win against the Ottawa Senators, shook his hand and officially welcomed him as the 10th member of one of the franchise's most exclusive clubs. Neal had just scored a playoff hat trick, joining the great Lemieux and eight others, including Hall of Famer Ron Francis and future Hall of Famers Jaromir Jagr, Sidney Crosby and Evgeni Malkin.
Texts to Neal quickly followed. One came from Penguins owner Ron Burkle. Friends and former teammates offered their congratulations. An especially meaningful one came from former Penguins cult hero Gary Roberts, who is Neal's mentor and conditioning guru. "I've been with him since I was 15," Neal said. "He told me he was proud of me. I can't say enough about what he has meant to my career. He's from my hometown. He's always treated me like I'm his son."
Neal is Peter and Deborah Neal's son. They called from home in Whitby, Ontario, after watching his big performance on television and seeing the Penguins eliminate the Senators in five games. "I can just see them yelling at the TV," Neal said, grinning. "My brother, Peter, told me he can't watch the games with them. He says it's too intense."
We pause here to offer a bit of information and unsolicited advice to the Consol Energy Center ops people, who do such a marvelous job with the pre- and in-game entertainment:
The Neals are making the drive down for Game 1 against the Boston Bruins. A little scoreboard face time seems only right. Vladimir and Natalia Malkin don't need all of the love.
Certainly, the big crowd would roar at sight of the Neals. Their boy has become a fan favorite and one of the Penguins' top players -- 40 goals last season, 21 goals in this lockout-shortened season despite missing eight games in April because of a concussion. Three goals in Game 5 against the Senators. Two goals in Game 4 ...
Neal's two against the Senators in the 7-3 win in Game 4 might have been his biggest with the Penguins. They came after he had gone five games without a goal, prompting stories here and in Canada, asking: What's wrong with James Neal? They also came after the team's 2-1, double-overtime loss in Game 3.
"We needed a big response in that next game," Neal said. "I thought we got it. We've done a good job staying in the moment and not looking too far ahead."
Neal said he wasn't surprised the goals finally came for him in Game 4. "When your game isn't where you want it to be, you know it. I didn't think that was the case with me. I felt good about how I was playing. I was getting good chances. I was getting good looks. The puck isn't always going to go in." Nor, Neal said, was he surprised that the hat trick followed in Game 5. "Once you get that first goal, it gives you confidence that the next one is going in, too. That's why goal-scorers are streaky."
Neal is capable of leading the NHL in playoff goals. He doesn't just have a quick, powerful, accurate shot. He gets time with the Penguins' first power-play unit, which has converted a league-best 13 of 46 opportunities during these playoffs. Through Sunday, Neal's six goals were tied with Ottawa's Kyle Turris and Chicago's Patrick Sharp for third-most behind Crosby and teammate Pascal Dupuis, each with seven.
It's no wonder the Penguins are averaging a staggering 4.27 goals per game.
Much has been said and written about coach Dan Bylsma's decision to play Neal and Jarome Iginla with center Evgeni Malkin even though both prefer to play right wing. More than one observer has suggested moving Iginla to Crosby's line and putting Chris Kunitz on Malkin's line. But Crosby has said he prefers playing with Kunitz and Dupuis. And it's not as if things are broken. In addition to the seven goals by Crosby and Dupuis, Kunitz has four. Malkin has 16 points. Iginla has four goals and 12 points.
"It's an honor to play with these guys," Neal said. "I keep saying this is a special place. They've created a winning atmosphere here, a fun atmosphere. It's a special team to be a part of."
Just how special will be determined in the next two weeks, the next month if the heavily favored Penguins make it to the Stanley Cup final. The Bruins, a big, strong defensive club, will be a tough out. The Penguins beat them three times in the regular season, each a low-scoring, one-goal game. Neal didn't have a goal in the first two games and sat out the third.
Are you thinking what I'm thinking? That Neal is due against the Bruins? The Senators know that feeling. They didn't like the results.
Ron Cook: firstname.lastname@example.org. Ron Cook can be heard on the "Vinnie and Cook" show weekdays from 10 a.m. to 2 p.m. on 93.7 The Fan.