James Neal hit Boston's Brad Marchand with his left knee while Marchand was down on the ice Saturday -- the move that brought Neal a five-game suspension that began Monday night at Columbus.
By Dave Molinari / Pittsburgh Post-Gazette
It all seems so obvious now.
Sure, there might have been a time -- say, just over 11 minutes into what would become a 3-2 loss Saturday night in Boston -- when Penguins winger James Neal figured, however briefly, that driving a knee into the head of Bruins forward Brad Marchand wasn't such a terrible idea.
Most of the Penguins view Marchand with a level of esteem usually reserved for foot fungus and Flyers, and there was a chance any contact Neal made with Marchand's skull while Marchand was off his feet would have been deemed inadvertent. But the officials saw what Neal did and immediately assessed a minor penalty.
More important, TV cameras also caught that sequence -- from multiple angles, no less -- and the footage made its way to Brendan Shanahan, who handles supplemental discipline for the NHL.
After, or perhaps before, speaking with Neal on the telephone Monday, Shanahan concluded that a five-game suspension would give Neal adequate time to reflect on his misdeed.
Which Neal apparently has done because, when the Penguins' practice Tuesday at Consol Energy Center ended, he volunteered that slamming into Marchand's head was "not the smartest decision I ever made."
Neal sat out the Penguins' 2-1 victory Monday against Columbus and won't be eligible to return until a home game Dec. 19 against Minnesota, but what troubles the Penguins most is that this is the third time a lapse in judgment has earned Neal some unpaid time off. If that's not a trend, it's perilously close, which is why coach Dan Bylsma made it clear that the Penguins would like to reprogram Neal, at least a little.
They don't want to strip the aggressiveness from his game -- it's part of the reason he's one of the league's most lethal goal-scorers -- but they do want it to be channeled more effectively. Which is to say, not through a knee or an elbow or a high stick.
"There needs to be some education there," coach Dan Bylsma said. "There needs to be some learning in how he needs to play the game and how he can play the game.
"There definitely has to be a learning aspect to the situation that James was in. He's a 40-goal scorer and has to be able to play that way without crossing that line."
Bylsma said he and Neal had a lengthy discussion about that subject Tuesday, and it probably will come up in the conversation a few more times in the future. For the moment, at least, Neal appears to understand what he did wrong in Boston, and to realize that he can't make a habit of it.
"I obviously bump into him, but I have no intent to hurt him or injure him," he said. "It's obviously tough to say that when you look at the play and you see my knee hit his head.
"There's really no excuses for it. I can't do it."
That certainly is the message Shanahan was trying to convey by issuing Neal the longest suspension allowed for a guy who was given a telephone hearing, even though some players and team officials on clubs that weren't involved in the incident believed a stiffer punishment was in order.
Neal said that while he "didn't know, really, what to expect" in the wake of his hearing, he didn't second-guess Shanahan's ruling.
"I respect the NHL's decision," he said. "I had no intent to injure somebody but, at the same time, looking back at the video, I shouldn't be doing [that]."
Neal was adamant that he was not seeking retribution for a run-in he had with Marchand in the Eastern Conference final earlier this year -- "That was the last thing that was going through my mind" -- and acknowledged the negative impact his absence over the next week could have on the Penguins.
"The way things have been going and the way our team has been playing, it's tough to do something like that and not be able to play," he said. "Not be able to help my team win."
Neal missed 15 games early this season because of an unspecified injury, but still ranks fourth on the team in points (20), sixth in assists (10) and third in goals (10).
Those numbers illustrate his value to the Penguins and underscore how losing him for four more games could have a negative impact on them.
"Am I sorry for it?" Neal said "Yeah. I hurt my team. I hurt myself. It's not something I want to be talked about for."
That's pretty obvious, too.
Dave Molinari: Dmolinari@post-gazette.com and Twitter @MolinariPG.
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