Despite the many starts and stops, he's still scoring at a terrific pace
March 22, 2014 8:15 PM
Pam Panchak / Post-Gazette
James Neal - Has missed 23 games this season
By Dave Molinari / Pittsburgh Post-Gazette
This is not, on several levels, the kind of season James Neal was expecting to have.
Or wanted, for that matter.
There surely was nothing on his to-do list last September about sitting out 23 of the Penguins' first 67 games, including Nos. 2-16 after logging less than four minutes of ice time in the regular-season opener Oct. 3.
Later, there would be a five-game suspension for intentionally kneeing Boston's Brad Marchand in the head, as well as a single-game absence in mid-January and the two he sat out last weekend because of a concussion.
Can't be easy for a guy to get into a rhythm when he's moving in and out of the lineup, especially when the linemate with whom Neal has such an obvious chemistry, Evgeni Malkin, has missed 11 games himself.
None of which coincided with any of the games for which Neal was unable to dress.
So perhaps it's even more impressive than it might seem at first blush that Neal put up 22 goals in his first 46 games, which projects to 39 over a full, 82-game season, even though he took a seven-game drought into the Penguins' game against Tampa Bay Saturday.
And it is pretty compelling evidence that Neal has the potential, under more favorable circumstances, to be a 50-goal man in some future season.
"I'd like to think so," he said recently. "Going into this year, in your head, you want to have that as a realistic goal. Every hockey player wants to score 50 goals in the NHL.
"It goes out of your grasp when you miss 20 games at the start of the year. That was tough."
Defenseman Matt Niskanen, Neal's teammate in Dallas before they were traded to the Penguins for Alex Goligoski in 2011, believes it's a realistic objective.
"The potential is there," he said. "That would be quite an accomplishment. That year he scored 40, he had a few streaks where it seemed like everything he shot went in.
"You can call it luck, but it's funny how some of the same guys always get lucky. He'd have to have a really good year, he'd have things go his way, but he could do it."
The stretch drive in the East
If Boston persists in cobbling together double-digit winning streaks like the one it took into the weekend, there won't be much reason to assess what's left on the Bruins' schedule.
Or, for that matter, that of the Penguins', since it would require a complete implosion for them to drop any lower than second place in the Eastern Conference standings.
Nonetheless, the Penguins still have a mathematical possibility of overtaking Boston and claiming the No. 1 seed in the Eastern playoffs, so here's a look at the home-and-away opponents remaining for both clubs:
Home (8) -- St. Louis, Phoenix, Los Angeles, Chicago, Carolina, Detroit, Philadelphia, Ottawa.
The Penguins have a clear edge in home games -- and were 18-2-2 in their previous 22 before facing Tampa Bay Saturday -- but will face a pretty formidable lineup of Western Conference powers at Consol Energy Center.
The Blues, Kings and Blackhawks all are legitimate threats to claim the Stanley Cup this spring.
Boston, meanwhile, should face some good tests on the road from the likes of the Flyers and the Wild, but away games haven't particularly troubled them so far in 2013-14; Boston went 19-10-3 in its first 32 away games.
The week ahead
Today: vs. St. Louis ... The Blues were a viable threat to win the Stanley Cup before they added goalie Ryan Miller. Having him on the payroll hasn't hurt their chances any.
Tuesday: vs. Phoenix ... Perhaps the Coyotes' talent is underestimated every year. Or maybe coach Dave Tippett really is that good at consistently getting the very most his players have to give.
Thursday: vs. Los Angeles ... The Kings won't rise any higher than third place in the Pacific Division, but their team defense is as stingy as any in the NHL.
Friday: at Columbus ... Clawing their way into the playoffs would be a huge step in the rebuilding of the Blue Jackets.
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