NEW YORK -- James Neal became a 40-goal man in the NHL for the first time a year ago, and there were people who dared to wonder if he might have a 50-goal year in him.
If everything broke just right.
But certainly not in a 48-game season.
After scoring twice in the Penguins' 6-3 victory against the New York Rangers Sunday night at Madison Square Garden, though, Neal is on pace to finish this lockout-shortened season with 72.
And his team, after season-opening victories in Philadelphia and Manhattan, is on a 96-point pace.
Will Neal finish with 72, or even 50, this season?
Penguins vs. Toronto Maple Leafs, Consol Energy Center for the home opener.
7:08 p.m. Wednesday.
Will the Penguins finish with 96, or anything terribly close to that?
Completely out of the question.
For now, though, what matters is that Neal and his team are off to the best start for which either could have hoped.
"It's a short season, so it's huge to come out of the gates fast," Neal said. "Two good tests for us in Philly and New York."
Neal's personal rampage looks like a carryover from 2011-12, which is what he was aiming for.
"That was my mindset coming in," he said. "Lucky enough, things are working out."
Neal's partnership with Evgeni Malkin has had few flaws to this point, but the same can't be said of the Penguins' weekend performances. Satisfying as the results were, both games had their blemishes.
Debut in net
Numbers for goalie Thomas Vokoun in his first game with the Penguins Sunday night:
- Goals allowed:
- Save percentage:
Against the Rangers, for example, they had a 5-1 lead after Neal rang up his second of the game at 5:06 of the third period, but allowed New York to score twice -- once short-handed -- before Kris Letang sealed the outcome with an empty-net, short-handed goal at 18:08.
"The results are there," Letang said. "There are different aspects of the game where we didn't [execute] our game plan for the full 60 minutes.
"If you look at our third period, we didn't manage the puck the right way and we gave them life. We have to make sure we're focused."
Goalie Tomas Vokoun, making his first start since the Penguins acquired him from Washington in June, didn't seem to have trouble focusing. He appeared to be fighting pucks for much of the game, but also stopped 31 of the 34 New York threw at him.
"It's like riding a bike," Vokoun said. "You never really forget it, even if you don't play for a long time."
The game had an auspicious start when Penguins winger Tanner Glass and ex-Penguin Arron Asham engaged in a lengthy, animated fight at center ice immediately after the opening faceoff.
"The longer, the better," Asham said. "Got to get my lungs ready."
That the fight was long is undisputed. Whether it was orchestrated is unclear.
Glass and Asham stretched alongside each other in the neutral zone before the game, but Glass insisted they did not arrange their bout then.
"I just said 'Hi' to him at the faceoff," Glass said. "I've come to know him a little bit. We've been on a few flights together, just by chance.
"I squared off against him. He said, 'Do you want to do this?' I said, 'Sure.'
"He said, 'Good luck.' I like when a guy does that."
Asham and Glass fought to a draw, and that was the best result New York got all night.
Neal put the Penguins up, 1-0, on a wrist shot from near the top of the left circle on a power play at 1:48 of the opening period.
New York pulled even on a five-on-three power play at 9:55, as Ryan Callahan swatted a Brad Richards rebound past Vokoun.
Tyler Kennedy restored the Penguins' lead at 15:25 by converting a Joe Vitale rebound.
Matt Niskanen made it 3-1 with his first goal of the season at 18:50, when his shot from the left point hit the skate of New York defenseman Dan Girardi and eluded goalie Henrik Lundqvist.
Sidney Crosby earned an assist, his first point of the season, by beating New York's Derek Stepan on a faceoff to get the puck to Niskanen.
The Penguins drove Lundqvist, the NHL's top goalie a year ago, from the game at 9:11 of the second period, when Pascal Dupuis steered in a Malkin feed to make it 4-1 on a power play.
Neal appeared to put the game out of reach at 5:06 of the third, as he took a feed from Malkin, who finished with three assists, and scored his third goal of the season from the inner edge of the right circle. But Taylor Pyatt got New York back within three 58 seconds later and Rick Nash got a short-handed goal at 14:45.
Letang rid the night of any suspense about the outcome, though, by hitting an empty net while the Penguins were killing a penalty at 18:08.
Not perfect hockey, to be sure, but a perfectly satisfying start to the season.
"We won the first two games, both against pretty tough opponents," Vokoun said. "I think we have to be happy with the four points."mobilehome - homepage - penguins
Dave Molinari: firstname.lastname@example.org or Twitter: @MolinariPG. First Published January 21, 2013 5:00 AM