Neal's expectations high in shortened season
James Neal looks up ice for a pass during afternoon workouts at Southpointe.
Penguins coach Dan Bylsma, right, talks with James Neal Sunday at practice.
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James Neal got one of those "yeah, right" looks when it was suggested that because last season he piled up a career-high 40 goals while scoring in 32 games, getting 40 goals in the upcoming 48-game season is doable.
The catch, of course, is that he scored in 32 of 80 games he played in 2011-12.
"I guess you can have high expectations or high goals. That's fine," the Penguins right winger said of the lockout-shortened season that begins Saturday. "But I'm just looking forward to getting going. It's been a long layoff. It's been tough."
Neal, 25, will have a reunion of sorts today with someone who helped him reach lofty marks last season of those 40 goals (ranking fourth in the NHL), 81 points (ranking seventh) and 18 power-play goals (ranking first).
Center Evgeni Malkin was due to land in Pittsburgh Sunday, although he was excused from the team's first post-lockout practice. He is expected to be around the club, and probably on the ice, today.
Malkin won the league scoring title with 109 points, including 50 goals, but after developing strong mutual instincts with Neal last season, the linemates have been half a world away most of the past nine months.
During the lockout that officially ended Saturday night, Malkin played for his Russian hometown club, Metallurg Magnitogorsk, in the Kontinental Hockey League.
Malkin is expected to arrive in game shape after ranking among KHL leaders with 23 goals, 65 points in 37 games in the KHL. Neal worked out in Ontario under the tutelage of former Penguins winger Gary Roberts with a group of players that included Tampa Bay star Steven Stamkos.
While Roberts is known for being strict if not punishing -- just as he was with his own workouts as a player -- it's not the same as playing in high-level games.
Neal isn't expecting a disconnect between him and Malkin, though.
"I hope not," he said. "I don't think it will be like that.
"Obviously it will be an adjustment period at the start to get back in game shape for me. [Malkin] has been playing, so he'll be in game shape. Hopefully, we can work through that quickly."
They also will need to find the right fit with a new left winger.
Chris Kunitz, who played on that line much of last season, returned to the team's other top-flight line with center Sidney Crosby and right winger Pascal Dupuis. Crosby missed most of last season because of concussion and neck issues.
Coach Dan Bylsma said after practice Sunday that Eric Tangradi, a budding power forward, will join Malkin and Neal at practice today.
Before Neal heard that news, he extolled the play of Kunitz, who had 26 goals and 61 points last season.
"[Kunitz] brings everything," Neal said of the hard-working veteran. "He hits. Skates. Shoots. Scores. Fights. If you were going to make a hockey player, you might make a Chris Kunitz.
"Those are tough hockey players to find, who have all those abilities, but we've got some capable guys."
Neal didn't go begging to management to leave Kunitz on his and Malkin's line, but he understands there's some urgency in getting that line clicking before the season opener Saturday at Philadelphia.
He's confident they can work in whichever left winger winds up there.
"I think so," Neal said. "Whoever it's going to be, I'm sure we're pretty familiar with him."
Tangradi has played in 40 games with the Penguins over the past three seasons when he wasn't in the American Hockey League playing with Wilkes-Barre/Scranton -- which is where he spent the lockout, getting 10 goals, 18 points in 34 games.
In one way, Tangradi has the advantage that Malkin does. Both played in games during the lockout, even if the KHL is a higher level than the AHL.
Neal is behind on that count, but he figures he and Malkin will pick up where they left off pretty quickly and Tangradi or whoever ends up with them on that line will feel comfortable right away.
"With the chemistry that [Malkin] and I have, hopefully we can work someone into that," Neal said. "We'll have to adjust, work together and get some chemistry right off the bat because there's no time to be wasted, that's for sure."
First Published January 14, 2013 12:00 am