Neal not meeting his goals so far
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For several years, the Penguins were in the market for a young winger who plays a power game and could produce a steady supply of goals.
The search ultimately led them to James Neal, a 23-year-old with a rugged style and a scoring touch.
A terrific fit, on almost every level. Except for one thing: Even though Neal's resume says he's a goal-scorer, his recent history doesn't.
He scored 24 for Dallas as a rookie in 2008-09, and 27 last season. Neal then put up 20 in his first 42 games with the Stars this season.
But the touch that had been so reliable has betrayed him lately. Neal scored in his final game with Dallas before being traded to the Penguins for Alex Goligoski 15 days ago, but had been shut out in 10 before that.
- Matchup: Buffalo Sabres at Penguins, 7:08 p.m. today, Consol Energy Center.
- TV/Radio: FSN Pittsburgh, WXDX-FM (105.9).
- Probable goaltenders: Marc-Andre Fleury for Penguins. Ryan Miller for Sabres.
- Penguins: Have not won consecutive games since running off five victories in row Jan. 22-Feb. 4. ... RW Tyler Kennedy has four goals in past eight games. ... Power play is in 1-for-21 slump.
- Sabres: Are 6-0-1 on road since 3-2 loss Feb. 4 vs. Penguins. ... D Andrej Sekera has five-game points streak, with two goals and eight assists in that span. ... Have scored just two short-handed goals, tied for second-fewest in NHL.
- Hidden stat: Eight of Penguins' past nine games have been decided by one goal.
And he is 0 for 6 with the Penguins going into their game against Buffalo tonight at Consol Energy Center. Doesn't even have an assist in those games, for that matter.
It's not an issue of generating shots or scoring opportunities; Neal has had plenty of both. He just isn't getting anything tangible to show for them.
"It's tough," Neal said. "You always want to score, but, when you're getting chances and doing the right things, it will come."
Not soon enough to suit him, of course. Getting one on his first shift in a Penguins sweater would have been more like it.
Still, the guys who decided Neal was the perfect choice to fill the void on their depth chart insist his inability to get a goal so far is not a cause for concern.
"I'd like to see him score one and I'm sure he would like to see him score, because you don't quite feel like you fit in, or justify the trade, until you bring what your game is," coach Dan Bylsma said. "But he fits right in with the way we're playing."
That was particularly true in the Penguins' 3-2 victory Saturday in Boston, when Neal was a presence all over the ice. He played a punishing physical game -- late in the first period, he felled toppled Zdeno Chara, the Bruins' monstrous defenseman, by driving a shoulder into him -- and forechecked ferociously.
"The last game was his best game, by far," Bylsma said.
Still, Neal didn't get a goal against the Bruins. Several quality chances, yes, but no goals. It was little consolation that he hit a goalpost, had a couple of dangerous shots from the slot blocked and watched helplessly as an Alex Kovalev setup hopped over this stick.
"[The Kovalev feed] just bounced at the wrong time," he said. "That's the way things are going right now."
There's little reason to think his luck will stay sour for much longer. Forget what he has done in the past; Neal is doing too many things well right now for his drought to drag on indefinitely.
"It's going to come," said Mark Letestu, who centers a line for Neal and Kovalev. "I think it's a matter of patience."
That's an utterly logical assessment, although it can be tough to embrace for the one who is slumping. Struggling players often try to compensate by contributing more than usual in other facets of the game, and that can be counterproductive.
"When you don't score, you get caught doing too much," Neal said. "You try to force stuff, so you just have to stay patient. Be physical, do the little things and try to find those open spots to get shots off."
Getting open is Neal's responsibility. Helping him to capitalize when he does is the obligation of his linemates.
There's a balance to be struck. If Letestu and Kovalev put undue emphasis on trying to get Neal back in a positive groove, the line's overall performance could suffer.
"If I start looking for him all the time, maybe it takes away from my game," Letestu said. "He's an accomplished scorer. He'll find ways to get open, and, when he does, it's my job to get him the puck. I have another winger out there who wants to score, too."
Fact is, the entire line could be more productive than it has been in its three games together.
"We've created a lot of chances," Kovalev said. "We could probably scored a couple of goals as a line every game.
"As soon as they start going in, it's going to be fun."
First Published March 8, 2011 12:00 am