Neal is what the Penguins need
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James Neal wasn't able to make it to town in time for the Penguins' practice Tuesday.
That is what happens when a plane that's supposed to land in Pittsburgh gets diverted to New Jersey, and a connecting flight sits in Newark long after it was supposed to touch down in Western Pennsylvania.
That was a tough break because it means Neal and defenseman Matt Niskanen, acquired from Dallas for defenseman Alex Goligoski Monday, won't have much time to get acclimated to their new team and surroundings before facing San Jose tonight at Consol Energy Center.
But much as the Penguins would have liked to have Neal for their workout Tuesday, they could have used him even more 15 or so hours earlier. That's when they lost to Washington, 1-0, mostly because they weren't able to get any of 39 shots past goalie Michal Neuvirth.
Game: San Jose Sharks at Penguins, 7:38 p.m. today, Consol Energy Center.
TV, radio, Internet: FSN Pittsburgh, WXDX-FM (105.9), www.penguins.nhl.com.
Probable goaltenders: Marc-Andre Fleury for Penguins. Antti Niemi for Sharks.
Penguins: Are 1-2 in past three home games after winning four in row. ... RW Tyler Kennedy has five goals in past 10 games. ... Have scored nine short-handed goals, tying for second most in league.
Sharks: Were 18-11-3 on road before playing in Detroit Tuesday night. ... C Joe Thornton took nine-game goal-less streak into Red Wings game. ... Have gone 8-8 against Eastern Conference opponents.
Of note: Fleury has allowed two or fewer goals in 28 of his past 38 starts.
There aren't many goal-scorers in the Penguins' lineup these days -- their top three in the Capitals game have combined for 33, one more than Sidney Crosby managed in 41 games before being sidelined by a concussion -- and the Penguins will be counting on Neal will bolster that glaring weakness.
He had 21 goals in 59 games with the Stars before being traded and has averaged one every three games during his two-plus seasons in the NHL. Not Brett Hull numbers, perhaps, but enough to have a positive impact on his new club.
"He could have been the difference [Monday] night in a game in which we think we did a lot of good things, but we didn't get a puck across the goal line," Penguins coach Dan Bylsma said. "He's a guy who would fit right into the way we played that game and be able to add, I think."
Bylsma described Neal, who is 6 feet 2, 208 pounds as essentially a larger, more offensively polished, version of Chris Kunitz, who has been the Penguins' first-line left winger for most of the past two years.
"He's not a lot different that Chris Kunitz," Bylsma said. "Maybe more of a goal-scorer, a heavier shot than Chris Kunitz, a bigger guy than Chris Kunitz and maybe more of an offensive-zone presence. He can be a real force down low."
So can Jordan Staal, who Bylsma plans to deploy between Neal and Tyler Kennedy.
"I could see [Neal and Staal] being a real formidable pair in the offensive zone," Bylsma said. "Two guys that are real tough to handle, and Tyler Kennedy going along with them, with his speed and work ethic and tenacity and his shot ... I'd like to see that line do some damage [tonight]."
That's hardly out of the question if Neal develops the kind of chemistry Matt Cooke has with Staal and Kennedy.
At the same time, there is no guarantee it will happen, especially when San Jose has been so stingy defensively of late. The Sharks had allowed as many as three goals just once in their previous eight games before visiting Detroit Tuesday night and recorded three shutouts during that stretch.
And while playing well defensively has had a certain urgency for the Sharks because high-profile forwards such as Patrick Marleau, Joe Thornton and Dany Heatley haven't been producing to expectations -- they had combined for just 13 points in the previous nine games before facing the Red Wings -- that doesn't detract from what they've been able to do in their own end.
The Capitals have emphasized playing better in their own end, too, but that didn't prevent them from being outworked by the Penguins for much of Monday night. Fact is, the only significant thing the Penguins would like to change about that game is their inability to exploit any of the scoring chances they created.
"If we played the same way again -- would replay that game -- I think we'd have a better fate," Cooke said. "If you look at the chances we had, I thought we manufactured upwards of 20 chances. When you do that, on most nights, you're going to score goals."
Sounds logical, but the Penguins have been burdened with an eye-dropper offense for a while; they haven't scored more than three goals in 14 games, and failed to get even one three times during that span.
"Eventually," said left winger Mike Rupp, "they're going to start falling. But, right now, it seems like all of us are a little snake-bitten."
Perhaps, but the Penguins hope to accelerate the process now that Neal finally has made it to town.
First Published February 23, 2011 12:00 am