Comfortable Neal churns out goals



The sweater is the same.

So is the job description.

Most of his teammates are, too, for that matter.

The productivity, though, could not be much more different.

Last season, James Neal scored two goals in 27 regular-season and playoff games after being acquired from Dallas. Thirty-eight games into 2011-12, he already has 21 -- six shy of the career-best 27 he got with the Stars in 2009-10 -- and has done nothing to suggest he will not be able to maintain that pace. Or, perhaps, accelerate it.

"I just feel way more confident out there," Neal said. "My confidence is obviously high, and that's a huge thing.

"Just the way we play here and the way our systems are, I feel like I fit into that when I got here. Obviously, I didn't produce last year, but it's just a great way to play.

"It's a recipe for success, and, playing with great players like [Chris Kunitz] and [Evgeni Malkin], it just plays into that."

With Sidney Crosby out indefinitely because of a concussion, the Kunitz-Malkin-Neal unit is the Penguins' undisputed No. 1 line and, with the way it has jelled, coach Dan Bylsma has not had much reason to consider breaking it up.

"Things have gone really well for that group," said assistant coach Tony Granato, who works with the forwards. "They've been very consistent.

"They've been playing both ends of the rink, which is something you always have to have on a line that's like that, that has that much skill. Obviously, they're having a lot of fun together."

Kunitz is an effective forechecker and capable goal-scorer, but the Malkin-Neal partnership is what makes the line so menacing. Talented players, even those with complementary skills, do not always have their games mesh, but that is not an issue in this case.

"He understands [Malkin] extremely well, as far as knowing how [Malkin] plays, knowing what [Malkin] needs to do to be successful," Granato said. "He doesn't interfere with that.

"[Malkin] needs the puck a lot, and, when you play with him, you have to understand that your job is to get open and find ways to give him space by using your speed, by using your understanding of the game to try to do that."

The best evidence of how their games have dovetailed, without negatively affecting either, might be this: Going into Tuesday night, Neal led the league with 156 shots, while Malkin was tied for second at 149, despite sitting out seven games.

Guys whose style is being crimped will not put the puck on goal with that sort of frequency.

Given that Neal's primary duty is scoring goals, it stands to reason that he emphasizes getting shots; witness the 212 he had in 79 games last season.

He acknowledged, though, that there is more incentive to shoot when a significant percentage of his shots end up behind the goalie, which might help to explain why his per-game average has risen from 2.68 to 4.1.

"When you have that confidence, you see the puck going in all the time," Neal said. "You feel like you're dangerous from wherever you're shooting the puck, and that's a good feeling to have.

"When you get in that zone of scoring and feel that confident and that good, it's a good thing to have."

Neal will enter the Penguins game against the New York Rangers Friday night at Consol Energy Center with a two-game goal-less streak. Not much of a slump, to be sure, but it is one game shy of matching his longest droughts this season.

His regular contributions have helped the Penguins maintain visual contact with the top teams in the Eastern Conference despite a glut of injuries, many to key players, and bolster the belief that Neal should be able to continuing scoring at his current pace.

"It's been a great length of time [that Neal has been scoring]," Granato said. "It's not like it's been a two-week stretch or five-game stretch. It's half a season."

Despite his strong start, Neal said he has not considered the possibility of winning the Rocket Richard Trophy, which goes to the NHL's top goal-scorer. Granato feels that is how it should be.

"I don't think he's looking at the numbers every day, saying, 'Geez, I have to get one or two to pull ahead of this guy,' " he said. "To win an award, something like that, you just play."

Friday

• Game: Penguins vs. Rangers, 7 p.m., Consol Energy Center.

• TV: Root Sports

• Inside: Marc Staal, a Rangers defenseman and brother of Jordan, returns to the lineup. Notebook, Page D-2.


Dave Molinari: Dmolinari@Post-Gazette.com or Twitter @MolinariPG. First Published January 4, 2012 5:00 AM


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