After missing eight games with a concussion, Penguins winger James Neal returned to the lineup on Saturday in Pittsburgh’s regular season finale vs. Carolina at CONSOL Energy Center.
All he wanted to do this evening, said Neal, was get back up to game speed and ramp it up for the playoffs.
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He may not have been expecting a lot in his first game back after a lengthy layoff, but Neal ended up playing arguably his best game of the season. Not only was he flying out there, but he scored his third career hat trick (and added an assist for a four-point performance) in a 8-3 win over the Hurricanes – giving him a total of 21 in 40 games. Neal has now reached the 20-goal mark in all five of his NHL seasons.
Neal credited the work he did with strength coach Mike Kadar to stay conditioned during his recovery and skating with injured stars Sidney Crosby and Paul Martin as to why he was able to have a game like he did tonight after a few weeks away from action.
“We definitely have some good skates when we’re injured with our strength coach Kadar,” Neal said. “It helps when you’re skating with the likes of Sid and Paulie. We do a lot of things to keep us as close to game shape as possible. It helped me out tonight.”
Neal also finished with a game-high eight shots, with his deadly release was on full display.
“James was physical, he skated well, he was in on the forecheck, especially in the first period,” coach Dan Bylsma. “Then we saw him get opportunities that maybe only James Neal can bury like he did today. The first one, getting that opportunity and snapping that puck; the power-play one with a give-and-go and the release on the shot. You play some games without the guy and without the shot and he steps back in and in one moment you realize how dangerous he is when he has the puck. I think to get him out there playing with Evgeni Malkin and snap the puck like that, I’m not sure it could have been a better outing for him.”
Neal had a hot start to this shortened season with 17 goals in his first 26 games, but had just one goal in 13 games before suffering the concussion on April 5 against the New York Rangers. So having the kind of game he had tonight after that paired with being out for a few weeks will do a lot for his confidence heading into next week’s playoffs.
“I wasn’t rushing or anything,” Neal said about the importance of this game to him personally. “If I felt good, then I’d play, you know? So I felt I was ready. It was great to get out there and get a game in before playoffs.”
Neal played right wing next to center Evgeni Malkin, with Chris Kunitz rejoining the two of them on the left side. The three of them spent a lot of time together last season with Sidney Crosby out, and they picked up right where they left off on Saturday.
Malkin earned the primary assist on two of Neal’s goals, while Kunitz got secondary assists on two of them as well.
“It’s always fun,” Neal said of playing with Malkin. It shows how good he is. He made some great passes tonight. ‘Kuni,’ who I guess I shouldn’t say flies under the radar because he’s been playing great, but some little plays he made to create those goals – he’s an unbelievable player.”
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