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Malkin Factors in Neal's Signing

Sunday, 02.19.2012 / 2:17 PM / Features
By Michelle Crechiolo
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Malkin Factors in Neal\'s Signing
Chemistry isn’t easy to define.

But if you want to get a better understanding of the term, watch James Neal and Evgeni Malkin play together and the picture should become much clearer.

Evgeni Malkin and James Neal at the 2012 NHL All-Star Game (Getty Images)
And with the six-year contract extension Neal just inked with Pittsburgh, the Penguins winger hopes that he and Malkin will continue to create that magic on the ice together for a long time.

When asked whether his experiences with Malkin this season played a factor in his decision to sign early and forego potential restricted free agency, Neal responded, “Of course.”

“When you find chemistry with a guy, you want to play with him for a long time,” he added. “We found some good chemistry from the start of the season and it’s just gotten better. I’m excited to be able to play on a line with ‘Geno’ for a long time coming.”

Neal, 24, and Malkin, 25, are Pittsburgh’s first pair of linemates to score 30 goals in the same season since 2000-01 when Jaromir Jagr/Mario Lemieux and Alexei Kovalev/Robert Lang all hit those marks.

They’re also the Penguins’ first pair of 30-goal scorers since Malkin and Sidney Crosby both reached that plateau back in 2008-09.

Neal is a young power forward with size, skill and impressive finishing ability who’d scored 20-plus goals in each of his first three NHL seasons before coming to Pittsburgh at the end of his third.

He’d been well on his way to becoming one of the top goal-scoring threats in the National Hockey League, and playing alongside an elite talent like Malkin has helped him make that next step.

“There have already been a few comments made that (Neal) owes some of that contract to the players he is playing with,” head coach Dan Bylsma joked before Sunday’s game. “The opportunity to play with great players and what it does for James Neal is clearly evident.

“He’s playing with different players than he was last year. He still had opportunities and was shooting the puck. He’s still the same player, but not scoring at the same rate. He’s playing with different players, great players. Playing on a good team and good organization is a part of that as well.”

First and foremost, Neal is a shooter. He threads pucks to the net from anywhere and everywhere, as evidenced by his NHL-leading 247 shots on goal.

And it’s Malkin who has the vision to feed him in areas where he can do that.

 “I like to shoot the puck. I like to put myself in a spot to score and Geno does the same thing, but can also pass the puck like no other,” Neal said. “With his speed and his skill, it’s a good combination.”

Neal also credited the third member of their line, Chris Kunitz, with clearing the way for him and Malkin to do what they do best.

“You don’t want to forget ‘Kuni’ in there,” Neal said. “He’s been a guy that’s helped this line tremendously and is in front of the net and digging loose pucks. You guys have noticed that. He’s helped the line out big time.”

This line combination has been playing incredibly throughout the regular season. Now, Neal wants to translate that into the playoffs.

“Last year with the injuries, it was tough,” he said. “We were obviously trying, but now we’ve got the guys and we can do some good things.”
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