Neal aims to leave Penguins flapping
It has been three years since Jim Rutherford, the Pittsburgh Penguins general manager, decided that he could live without James Neal.
Rutherford, new in the post, sent Neal to the Nashville Predators during the first round of the NHL Draft in exchange for forwards Patric Hornqvist and Nick Spaling.
And while last year's Stanley Cup win suggests that was a good move for Pittsburgh, it has not worked out badly for the Predators either.
Neal has scored five times in the past 11 games as the Predators have powered their way to a first Stanley Cup Final appearance in the franchise's 19-year history.
To suggest that the Predators' right wing has revenge on his mind would be a little a strong, but he will be going out to make a point.
“I think any time you get traded you want a little bit to get back at that team, and play them extra hard,” he said. “For me it's been three years and you kind of move past it, but there is always that side of you wants to beat them and wants to win. We have a chance to do that, I look forward to doing that.”
Not that Neal needs any more motivation against Pittsburgh. Appearing in the Stanley Cup Final with a chance to beat a Penguins team, whose defence has been hit hard by injury, including the loss of Kris Letang, is motivation enough.
“I think any time you've played for a team, and you get a chance to play against them again it's always fun,” Neal said. “It gets you up for it a little bit more, but when you're playing for the Stanley Cup you can't get up for a game any more than that.”
There is also the small matter of making history; for both teams. The Penguins can become the first repeat champions of the salary-cap era, the Predators meanwhile, who mustered just 94 regular season points and took the second wild card in the Western Conference, began the playoffs as 30-1 outsiders.
A win for Nashville would make them the first 16-seed to do so in the history of the National Hockey League.
Still, the Predators go into tonight's first game of the Final in Pittsburgh as underdogs, but only just. The loss of Ryan Johansen, their best centre, is a blow, but in P.K. Subban and Roman Josi they have the best defence in the league, playing in front of arguably the league's best goalie in Pekka Rinne.
On the other side the defending champion Penguins have Sidney Crosby and Evgeni Malkin, two of the best, if not the best, centres in the game. In Matt Murray and Marc- Andre Fleury they have two goalies who have led their teams to Stanley Cups in the past. As the highest seed they also have the advantage of playing four games at home, which may well be enough to get them across the line.
Tellingly, Nashville also go into the opener on the back of a week's rest after eliminating the Anaheim Ducks last Monday. That gives them three days more rest than Pittsburgh in a postseason that has been harder on the Penguins overall.
Nashville needed four games to win in the first round and six to win the second. Pittsburgh took five and seven, respectively.
“At this time of the year rest is a great thing,” Neal said. “You play such a long time — 82 games — it's a long season, and then when you're battling in the play-offs and giving everything you've got every night it's definitely taxing on the body. Any time you can get a couple of days rest to kind of rejuvenate and replenish it helps a lot. There definitely won't be any rust. Our practices are up-tempo and we'll be ready to go. I think it will help us out in the long run.”
Whatever happens the Predators will not go down without a fight, and are hard to beat at home. They have also yet to lose a game this postseason after leading at the end of the second period.
Neal's goals have helped with that.
The right wing, who has family in Bermuda, scored game winners against the St Louis Blues and Anaheim Ducks, and after a goal drought towards the end of the regular season is hitting form at the perfect time.
“As a goalscorer you're going to go through highs and lows in your career, and definitely through a season,” Neal said. “I've been playing [in the NHL] for nine years and as you mature you know how to go through the highs and the lows. Going into the play-offs you have that experience and you know what you're going to get out of a change, you know what you're going to get from your team, and you know how to manage the game.
“You don't get many chances to win and when you find yourself in the play-offs you want to give it everything you've got to try and win a Stanley Cup. I feel great at the right time. I'm enjoying the ride, living in the moment, and enjoying every single game because it truly is the best time of the year and something I have worked my whole life for.”