Penguins notebook: Winger James Neal's return to practice is expected on Friday

PENGUINS NOTEBOOK



NEW YORK -- James Neal's teammates finally saw him at a game-day skate Wednesday.

And, if the Penguins' plan holds, they should see Neal in a practice Friday.

But, while there still is no word on when they actually might see him in a game -- probably not anytime terribly soon -- having Neal skate at Madison Square Garden a few hours before the Penguins' game against the New York Rangers apparently provided a significant morale boost.

"Having James on the ice, even in a small quantity ... there was a lot of jump in a lot of guys' step, seeing James out there," coach Dan Bylsma said.

He added that Neal, whose involvement this season has been limited to five shifts Oct. 3 in the opener, went out Wednesday "just so he could get a post-practice skate."

The prognosis is much better for another injured winger, Beau Bennett.

Barring a setback, Bennett, who has sat out 11 games in a row because of an unspecified injury, is expected to play Saturday night when the Penguins visit St. Louis.

"Hopefully, he's progressing, with a few more skates and practices, toward playing on the weekend," Bylsma said.

Not losing focus

Washington's 6-2 victory against the New York Islanders Tuesday bumped the Capitals' record to 8-7. That means the number of Metropolitan Division teams with a winning record doubled to two in a few hours. The Penguins, who took an 11-4 mark into their game against the New York Rangers, are the other.

And while a team's fortunes can change at any time, the Penguins look as if they might be able to raise a division championship banner by Valentines Day. Or Groundhog Day. Or maybe Thanksgiving, the way things played out over the first month-plus of the season.

Nonetheless, defenseman Robert Bortuzzo said that the lead the Penguins have built over other Metropolitan clubs isn't likely to cause them to lose focus or intensity.

"Honestly, I couldn't see that at all with the group we have," Bortuzzo said. "We understand we need to get better every day. I don't know if guys are looking too closely at the standings right now. It's still very early in the season."

Is it Miller's time?

Forward J.T. Miller of Coraopolis was back in New York's lineup Wednesday after being a healthy scratch for a 2-1 loss 48 hours earlier against Anaheim. He played in the Rangers' opener Oct. 3, then was sent to their American Hockey League affiliate in Hartford for four games before returning to the NHL.

"You have to believe he's real excited and motivated to be in the NHL, real excited and motivated to try to stay in the NHL and become a regular contributor to a good team," New York coach Alain Vigneault said.

Miller entered Wednesday night with one point (an assist) in nine games and has not played with the consistency the Rangers want if he is to become a fixture on the major league roster.

"Obviously, as a younger guy, consistency is a huge [issue]," he said. "I have to not stray away from my role, try to play simple hockey. Play hard, and provide energy every night. "[I approach] every game as if it's my last. I have to play within the system, play hard and try to make plays, at the same time."

Miller downplayed any extra motivation that might come from facing the team he followed as a youth -- "At the end of the day, it doesn't matter who you're playing," he said -- but acknowledged that he used to try to emulate former Penguins winger Alexei Kovalev.

"I don't play like him anymore, but I used to try to when I actually had a lot of time with the puck," Miller said. "His wrist shot was pretty special to watch. Everybody knows how gifted he was."

Tip-ins

Winger Matt D'Agostini was the Penguins' healthy scratch. ... Bylsma, on rookie defenseman Olli Maatta's first month-plus in the NHL: "There's nothing about his play that's been 18 or 19 years old. He's been really solid."

Dave Molinari: Dmolinari@post-gazette.com and Twitter @MolinariPG.


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