James Neal looks like the real deal

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The Washington Capitals did what they always do. They beat the Penguins in Pittsburgh. Their 3-2 win in overtime at Consol Energy Center Thursday night made it eight regular-season wins in a row here.

This time was different, though.

This time, the Penguins were able to go home feeling good about themselves because of great news about Sidney Crosby earlier in the day and a big goal-scoring game by James Neal.

But many of their fans among the sellout crowd? Not so much.

They should have gone home feeling ashamed of themselves. They embarrassed the Penguins and the city when they raucously cheered Arron Asham's knockout of Capitals center Jay Beagle even after it was clear Beagle was more than a little bit hurt and couldn't get up without help from the medical staff. It was bad enough that Asham made a lights-out, sleeping gesture with his hands after the fight, a classless move for which he quickly apologized after the game. It was much worse that many in the crowd kept cheering even as Beagle was receiving medical attention.

How do those fans sleep at night?

They don't deserve having Crosby and Neal on their team.

Crosby was cleared for contact in practice in the morning. It appears we no longer will have to wait months or even weeks for his return from his concussion. Barring a setback, he should be back in the lineup in a matter of days.

It doesn't take a genius to figure out what the world's best player will mean to the Penguins when he is playing again. Heck, I'm thinking even the morons who cheered Beagle's distress can figure that one out.

But Neal's game also was huge. He scored both Penguins goals, giving him four in the first five games. That doubles his total last season in 27 games -- including playoffs -- after he joined the team from Dallas at the trade deadline.

Suddenly, the projections for Neal to get 30 goals this season don't seem so outrageous. They especially don't seem outrageous if he keeps playing with Evgeni Malkin -- as he did against the Capitals -- or with Crosby when he returns. He didn't get the chance to skate with either last season because of injuries to the two stars.

"Geno or Sid, I'll gladly play with either one," Neal said, grinning.

Malkin set up both Neal goals in this game after missing the previous two games with some vague "soreness" issue in his lower body. Linemate Steve Sullivan took Malkin's drop-pass in the first period and fired a cross-ice pass to Neal, who drilled the shot through goaltender Tomas Vokoun to give the Penguins a 1-0 lead. Malkin then found Neal with a pretty pass on the power play late in the third, and Neal buried the shot to pull the team into a 2-2 tie.

"It's great to play with him," Neal said of Malkin. "You saw how good he is. He was flying."

We also saw Neal's scoring capability. All summer, people wondered if the Penguins wingers were good enough to produce goals. So far, Neal has eased their concerns.

"James scores goals," Penguins coach Dan Bylsma said. "He's got a great shot. He's a faster skater. He's a hard skater to the net."

It helped that Neal scored his first goal of the season -- on the power play, no less -- on his first shot in the opening-game win Oct. 6 at Vancouver. He added the clinching goal in the third period in the 4-2 win Tuesday night against the Florida Panthers.

"It couldn't have worked out better for me getting that first goal early like that," Neal said. "I thought I had a great summer. I couldn't wait to get back here to redeem myself."

Neal took a lot of criticism in the spring for getting just one goal in the first-round playoff loss to the Tampa Bay Lightning after getting just one in the final 20 regular-season games. The Penguins traded promising young defenseman Alex Goligoski for this guy? Are you kidding?

Neal admitted he pressed, trying to justify the deal. That made things worse. The new season meant a new start for him. He's still just 24 and scored at least 22 goals in each of his first three NHL seasons. It took a while for him to adjust to the Penguins, but it's looking as if the wait might end up being worth it.

"I feel a lot more comfortable," Neal said. "When you get traded, it's tough. You get a call at practice and your whole life is upside down in seconds. The next thing you know, you're on a plane and in a hotel room in a different city. You have to leave your team. You have to leave your friends ...

"But you make new friends. The guys here have been unbelievable. I'm very lucky to be in this spot. This is a great organization. There are so many great players here. I'm excited about how good this team really is."

It will be a lot better once Crosby gets back. It will be hard to beat if he and Malkin stay healthy. And, certainly, it won't hurt if Neal keeps scoring goals.

I'm liking the Penguins' chances a lot more when they play the Capitals Dec. 1 in Washington. Actually, I'm even liking 'em when the Captitals return here Jan. 22.

Now that's saying something.


Ron Cook: rcook@post-gazette.com . Cook can be heard on the "Vinnie and Cook" show weekdays from 10 a.m. to 2 p.m. on 93.7 The Fan.


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