Cross Checks: James Neal



PHILADELPHIA -- In the midst of an offseason of tremendous upheaval, the Pittsburgh Penguins were determined to change the complexion, the character of their team following another disappointing playoff exit.

And so it wasn’t a complete surprise that on Friday winger James Neal was dealt to the Nashville Predators. The question, though, is whether the Penguins believe they may have added by subtraction with the deal because, in terms of straight-up skill, the Predators ended up with the best hockey player in the deal that saw Patric Hornqvist and center Nick Spaling go to Pittsburgh.

Neal, when he’s on his game, is a 40-goal threat and instantly becomes the Predators’ most dangerous offensive weapon. The 26-year-old should help the Predators’ power play and he is under contract through the 2017-18 season at a relatively modest cap hit of $5 million.

Did we mention when Neal is on his game?

Because there are times when he’s not on his game -- as in during most of the Penguins’ past three postseason runs -- when he was only occasionally engaged.

He had just two goals in 13 postseason games this spring and was held without a point during a four-game sweep at the hands of the Boston Bruins in the 2013 Eastern Conference finals.

Worse, Neal has a penchant for taking undisciplined penalties, some of which have led to suspensions.

Will that matter to an offensively-challenged Predators team that has missed the playoffs two straight years and will have a new coach behind the bench for the first time in franchise history next fall in Peter Laviolette?

Not really.

Perhaps this trade will represent something of a wake-up call for Neal, and he certainly will be counted on to be a front-line performer in Nashville as opposed to a complementary player in Pittsburgh, where he was able to exist in the shadow of Sidney Crosby and Evgeni Malkin.

Indeed, assuming Pekka Rinne returns to form after an injury-plagued 2013-14 campaign, Seth Jones continues his evolution and Shea Weber is rolling along in Norris Trophy form, Neal may be the kind of addition that propels the Predators back into the playoffs.

As for the Penguins, Hornqvist, 28, will fill some of the offensive vacuum created by Neal’s absence and, if he ends up playing with Malkin or Crosby, he could return to the 30-goal plateau for the first time since 2009-10. But Hornqvist, who has the distinction of being the very last person selected in the 2005 draft, is not particularly speedy. And with a cap hit of $4.75 million through the 2017-18 season, he doesn’t represent much in the way of savings for a Penguins team that has significant salary-cap issues.

Spaling, a restricted free agent, will add depth down the middle and had a career-best 13 goals for the Predators last season.

COLUMBUS -- Not sure that "puzzler" even begins to describe the current state of offensive affairs for the Pittsburgh Penguins and their roster of elite goal producers.

But the black and the white of it is this: through the last seven playoff games, James Neal, Evgeni Malkin, Chris Kunitz, Kris Letang and captain Sidney Crosby have combined to score (wait for it) zero postseason goals.

Zero.

The big egg.

Still, the Penguins are up 2-1 in their Eastern Conference quarterfinal series against the Columbus Blue Jackets despite a lack of scoring from guys whose jobs are, at least in large part, to score goals -- which is a testament to the team's depth, something critics questioned heading into the postseason.

Indeed, trailing late in the second period of Game 3 in Columbus on Monday night, it was defensive defenseman Brooks Orpik going Denis Potvin and scoring a crucial goal with 1.8 seconds left to narrow the score to 2-1.

Then, trailing 3-1 in the third, the Penguins shockingly scored three goals on three straight shots as Brandon Sutter, Lee Stempniak and Jussi Jokinen paced the Pens to a come-from-behind victory.

But having success despite the big boys' drought doesn't mean that Penguins coach Dan Bylsma is content to sit around and wait for the inevitable to happen. In fact, Bylsma figures that the way the goals were scored in Game 3 -- with lots of traffic around Columbus netminder Sergei Bobrovsky, and two of them ending up in the net courtesy of deflections -- is a lesson to the entire Penguins' lineup, big gun or not.

"I don't think you can wait around to quote yourself, for an opportunity or a goal to happen or lightning to strike," Bylsma said after the Penguins went through an optional skate Tuesday afternoon that saw very few regulars take part.

"The important part is exactly how they're going to come. And the goals we got last game were evidence of that.

"I don't think we can expect it to be an easy goal or a flash goal or a two-on-one and an odd-man opportunity. It's going to be dirty and ugly, and that's where we've got to go and that's where we got to get them from. That's regardless of whether it's Brandon Sutter scoring at the net or getting goals from Crosby at the net."

On the other side of the ice, or fence, Columbus coach Todd Richards understands that the math and history and just plain old logic suggests that keeping the big guns silent the longer this series goes appears to be a greater and greater challenge.

"You're right, those are great players you just named and they've obviously had great seasons and they're real important pieces on their respective team," Richards said. "It is tough to think that you're going to keep them [shut down]. I don't know if you can do that if this goes to a seven-game series. They're too good.

"One thing we have to be careful of is we've been putting these guys on the power play. We've been giving them lots of opportunities to be able to finish. The more we can make these guys play in their zone, obviously they’re 200 feet from our net and expending some energy in their own zone. So we need to continue to do that."

Indeed, the Penguins have managed to score just once in 14 power-play chances the last two games but believe the momentum they've generated on those opportunities has been crucial to leading to other scores.

"Those are dangerous guys, and we know that -- and at any moment, at any moment," Richards said. "You go back and you look at scoring chances, they're getting scoring chances, so [Sergei Bobrovsky is] making the saves or maybe we're in the right place to block a shot, so we need to continue to do those. This goes seven games, I think at some point you figure that they’re going to get one or two, but if we can keep it to a minimum, it will be in our favor."
Penguins 6, Jets 5
* Penguins: 12th straight home win; first team in NHL history to win at least 12 straight home games in back-to-back seasons.
* Dan Bylsma (PIT): ties Penguins record for career wins as a head coach (232, Eddie Johnston).
* Evgeni Malkin (PIT) two goals, one assist; second straight game with at least three points, had not played since a three-point game on Dec. 14.
* James Neal (PIT): two goals, one assist; has six goals and six assists in his last five games

FROM ELIAS: Evgeni Malkin, playing his first game after three weeks on the injured list, scored two goals and assisted on another in the Penguins' 6–5 win over the Jets. It was Malkin's eighth career game with three or more points against the Atlanta/Winnipeg franchise, his highest such total versus any NHL team. The only other teams against which Malkin has recorded at least five games of three or more points are Toronto and Washington (six each).

Sharks 3, Blackhawks 2 (F/SO)
* Sharks: win snaps four-game losing streak vs Blackhawks; won each of last four shootouts overall
* Brent Burns (SJ): Goal (14); five goals in last seven games
* Blackhawks: lost each of last four shootouts
* Michal Rozsival (CHI): Goal (1); first goal since March 1, 2012.

3 stars: Sharp, Miller, Neal

December, 30, 2013
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From the official NHL release:

SHARP, MILLER AND NEAL NAMED NHL ‘THREE STARS’ OF THE WEEK


NEW YORK (December 30, 2013) -- Chicago Blackhawks left wing Patrick Sharp, Buffalo Sabres goaltender Ryan Miller and Pittsburgh Penguins left wing James Neal have been named the NHL’s “Three Stars” for the week ending Dec. 29.

FIRST STAR – PATRICK SHARP, LW, CHICAGO BLACKHAWKS

Sharp led the NHL with six goals and tied for second with seven points as the Blackhawks (27-7-7, 61 points) earned five out of a possible six points to maintain first place in the Central Division. He began the week by scoring two goals in a 5-2 victory over the New Jersey Devils Dec.
23. Celebrating his 32nd birthday, Sharp (3-1—4) recorded his third career hat trick, including the game-winning goal, in a 7-2 triumph over the Colorado Avalanche Dec. 27 to become the first player in Blackhawks history – and second NHLer in the last 22 seasons (Pavol Demitra: Nov. 29, 2002) – to post three goals on his birthday. He capped the week by scoring his 22nd goal of the season, tied for fourth in the League, in a 6-5 shootout loss to the St. Louis Blues Dec. 28. Sharp ranks second on the Blackhawks and tied for eighth in the NHL with 22-19—41 in 41 games this season, including
11-6—17 in his past 10 outings.

SECOND STAR – RYAN MILLER, G, BUFFALO SABRES

Miller posted a 2-0-1 record with a 1.55 goals-against average and .961 save percentage to help the Sabres (11-24-4, 26 points) gain five out of a possible six points. He opened the week with 36 saves in a 2-1 overtime victory against the Phoenix Coyotes Dec. 23. He then recorded 39 saves, plus another two in the shootout, in a 4-3 loss to the Toronto Maple Leafs Dec. 27. Miller finished the week with a career-high 49 saves and stopped all six shootout attempts in a 2-1 win over the Washington Capitals Dec. 29, improving to 3-0-0 all-time in games in which he has faced 50 or more shots (also Jan. 8, 2010: 48 saves on 50 shots; Nov. 5, 2013: 47 saves on 51 shots). The 33-year-old East Lansing, Mich., native has played in 28 games this season, posting a 10-17-1 record with a 2.69 goals-against average and .927 save percentage.

THIRD STAR – JAMES NEAL, LW, PITTSBURGH PENGUINS

Neal (4-4—8) led the League with eight points as the Penguins (29-11-1, 59 points) won two of three games to remain in first place in the Eastern Conference. He was held off the scoresheet in a 5-0 loss to the Ottawa Senators Dec. 23, but broke out with 1-2—3, including the overtime winner, in a 4-3 victory over the Carolina Hurricanes Dec. 27. Neal (3-2—5) then recorded his fourth career hat trick and first five-point game in a
5-3 win over the Columbus Blue Jackets Dec. 29. According to the Elias Sports Bureau, he also became the first Penguins player to register at least five points in a game in which he factored all of his team’s goals since Jan. 19, 2010, when Sidney Crosby posted 2-4—6 in a 6-4 triumph over the New York Islanders. The 26-year-old Whitby, Ont., native has played in
21 games this season, totaling 14-16—30, including 13-14—27 in his past 15 outings.
While we await word on just how big a whack Boston's Shawn Thornton will get for hunting down and pummeling unsuspecting Penguin Brooks Orpik (the guess is a dozen games for sending Orpik to the hospital with a concussion and to the injured reserve list), league disciplinarian Brendan Shanahan got it just about right with the five-game suspension handed down to James Neal for kneeing Brad Marchand in the head in the same game.

In a game with plenty of ugliness, Neal's cheap shot to an equally unsuspecting Marchand was the most senselessly bizarre. One wonders how the suspension will effect Neal's standing with the Canadian Olympic group. It's not just the five games he'll miss, but the question of whether in a tournament in which special teams will play a prominent role, you can afford to have someone on your team who has so little self-control.

[+] EnlargeBrooks Orpik
Jared Wickerham/Getty ImagesThe notion that Brooks Orpik should have to defend himself or risk getting injured after a legal play is part of the problem in today's game.
Finally, the Bruins not only lost Loui Eriksson to a hit from Orpik in that game, but also Chris Kelly to a broken leg courtesy of Pascal Dupuis. The replay of Kelly's injury shows that Dupuis isn't even looking at Kelly but is instead trying to make contact with a bouncing puck, but that won't make Kelly or the Bruins feel any better.

One NHL executive at the board of governors' meetings in California suggested that if Orpik had simply fought Thornton -- as Thornton had wanted after Orpik's heavy hit on Eriksson -- none of this would have happened. Oy.

If there is a problem the league's GMs and competition committee need to address, it's the notion that players should have to fight after delivering a legal body check. Whatever happened to simply taking a hit?

The sooner the league moves to punish players who go looking for fights in the aftermath of clean hockey hits -– there was no penalty assessed on the Orpik hit on Eriksson –- the sooner we have fewer incidents like the debacle in Boston on Saturday.

Lightning bitten by injury bug
While the Bruins deal with several injuries and the loss of Thornton (and continue winning, by the way), no team has it quite as bad as the Tampa Bay Lightning.

After being relatively injury-free through the first six weeks of the regular season, Tampa Bay lost Steven Stamkos to a broken leg in November and has been besieged by other key injuries since.

"It was exactly like the injury dam broke," head coach Jon Cooper told ESPN.com Monday.

The Lightning have piled up 101 man-games lost to injury, and at one point last week had 13 players in the lineup with fewer than 100 NHL games to their credit, and eight with fewer than 50 games.

On the night the Lightning got defensemen Eric Brewer and Radko Gudas back from injury, Keith Aulie and Victor Hedman both went down with long-term injuries. The two defensemen join Stamkos and veteran winger Ryan Malone among those with significant injuries.

One of the first things Cooper did when talking to his players about the spate of injuries is to make it clear they weren't going to use them as an excuse for on-ice performance.

"The one thing we'll never do is use injuries as an excuse because once you do that, we're done as a team," Cooper said. "The mindset has been, 'These are the 20 guys we're going with on any given night, now how do we get the most out of them?'"

But the rash of injuries that totaled more than 2,800 games of NHL experience has tested the team's organizational depth and forced players to play out of their comfort zone. Valtteri Filppula, for instance, is now the team's No. 1 center and Tyler Johnson is in Filppula's normal spot on the second line, meaning both are playing against a class of players they're not used to seeing.

Overall, Tampa has four rookies among in the top 30 in scoring among first-year players.

The team has held its own since Stamkos went down, going 5-5-2 overall and 4-1-1 at home. The team defense and goaltending have been excellent, but the team's offense has, perhaps predictably, gone south.

"The problem is we're really struggling to score," Cooper said.

Surprise for Sabres?
Among the interesting names being bandied about for the vacant Buffalo Sabres GM job is that of Tim Murray. The current assistant GM in Ottawa, Murray had a hand in building the Anaheim Ducks' Stanley Cup winner in 2007 as director of player personnel responsible for college free agents.

He has also served with the New York Rangers and Florida Panthers in various scouting capacities. Bloodlines don't hurt, either, and Murray is the nephew of current Ottawa GM Bryan Murray and former NHL head coach Terry Murray.

Fisher making a Selke case
Of all the trophies hockey writers vote on, the one that gives us most pause is narrowing the field for the Frank J. Selke Trophy as the league's best two-way forward. It is always difficult to balance the offensive side of the game with the work a player does killing penalties, taking key draws and shutting down the opposing team's top players.

So we listened with interest as Nashville head coach Barry Trotz talked about his top shutdown center, Mike Fisher. The team has struggled and Fisher's offensive numbers (seven goals, 12 points) aren't what he or the team hoped for, but he remains a key figure even though his work goes largely unnoticed.

"He's always been a guy, top centerman in the league, he ends up playing a lot of times head-to-head [against opposing stars] and I think he hasn't got any credit for that here the last couple of years," Trotz said in a recent interview. "He's scored and all that, but he's sort of under the radar and I think this year, especially this year, he's played really back to the level that I think has made him a real hard player, a Selke candidate.

"His numbers are modest, but they're solid for our team. He plays against the top guys almost every night. He plays heavy minutes and he plays a heavy game. He doesn't play a light, shadowy game.

"At the end of the night, you know you played Mike Fisher. At the same time he still operates on the penalty kill, still operates on our power play," Trotz continued. "Plays head-to-head against people, plays in all the key situations, takes key faceoffs, him and Paul Gaustad. He really is a guy who is very important to their team, but at the same time contributes on both sides of the puck.

"He's not a pure shutdown guy; that's why I don't think he gets the credit that he deserves. It's a hard league and he's a hard guy to play against."

W2W4: Rangers vs. Penguins

November, 6, 2013
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At a glance: After coming up short against the league-leading Anaheim Ducks Monday night, the New York Rangers face another big test Wednesday when they host Sidney Crosby and the Pittsburgh Penguins at Madison Square Garden. The Penguins enter Wednesday’s match with a four-game winning streak that has them perched in first place of the Eastern Conference.

First look: Having previously coached in the Western Conference, Alain Vigneault hasn’t seen Crosby and Evgeni Malkin in action much in recent years. He admitted he was excited about the challenge facing his team: “I think everybody’s going to be ready for tonight."

Hometown boy: Rangers forward J.T. Miller returns to the lineup after being scratched Monday night to face his hometown Pittsburgh Penguins. The Pittsburgh-area native is trying to make a strong impression while the Rangers organization determines what is best for the young winger: send him to the AHL to play top minutes or keep him in a more limited role with the big club. Making room for Miller’s return to the lineup is hulking forward Brandon Mashinter, who will sit out along with depth defenseman Justin Falk.

Leading the way: Crosby leads the league with 23 points through the first 15 games of the season. His dominant offensive production has been vital considering the team has suffered some significant injuries up front. The Pens are without James Neal and Beau Bennett, though Neal joined the Penguins for the morning skate for the first time since suffering an upper-body injury last month.

Nothing on Nash: Speaking of injuries, the Rangers still say there is nothing to report on injured winger Rick Nash, who suffered a concussion last month. The star forward will not be available when the Rangers travel to Columbus for the first time since acquiring Nash in a blockbuster deal with the Blue Jackets during the offseason of 2012.


PITTSBURGH -- It was probably the moment when Evgeni Malkin and Patrice Bergeron, he of the one career NHL fight, decided to drop the gloves and start whaling on each other at center ice that illustrated how very quickly this Eastern Conference finals had gone off the charts emotionally. And while Malkin, a former Hart Trophy winner, scoring champ and playoff MVP, might have won a unanimous decision in his rare bout with the Boston center, it was the Bruins who scored the Game 1 knockout by blanking the Penguins by a 3-0 count.

The game, a curious affair filled with borderline and over-the-line plays, including a hitting-from-behind call against the polarizing Matt Cooke, put us immediately in mind of last year’s first-round series between Pittsburgh and Philadelphia: a wacky, out-of-kilter series that featured at one point simultaneous fights between Claude Giroux and Sidney Crosby and Kris Letang and Kimmo Timonen.

Given how the Philadelphia-Pittsburgh series of April 2012 turned out, with the Flyers getting the Penguins completely off their game and walking away with a six-game victory -- including victories in the first two games in Pittsburgh -- you have to figure Saturday’s emotionally charged affair was exactly what the Bruins were looking for to begin the conference finals.

"I don’t think the situation at the end of the second period was in our favor," Pittsburgh head coach Dan Bylsma said of the Malkin fight and an extended jawing session between the two captains, Boston’s Zdeno Chara towering over his counterpart Sidney Crosby while exchanging pleasantries near where the fight was taking place.

Although the Penguins trailed just 1-0 at that point, Bylsma pointed to that moment as the one where Game 1 got away from the Penguins and conversely when the Bruins seized control.

The Penguins were on a power play at the end of the second period that would carry into the third, thanks to another potentially dangerous play by Brad Marchand, who was called for boarding after hitting James Neal from behind near the Pittsburgh bench.

But with the Penguins missing power play mainstay Malkin, off for fighting, as well as Chris Kunitz, who was sent off late in the second with Rich Peverley for another dustup, the Bruins continued their strong penalty kill, and shortly after the Penguins’ power play ended scored their second goal to suck the life out of the Penguins.

"It did get us off our game," Bylsma acknowledged.

Defenseman Brooks Orpik suggested the Bruins are the team better suited for those kinds of extracurricular activities and that it did seem to change the course of the game.

"After that, it seemed like they were a lot better," he said.

The Bruins, of course, saw that defining moment through a different prism.

"That sums up this time of year," Boston defenseman Andrew Ference said. "Two of the top guys on each team are raising the stakes and will do anything to either fire up the team, to swing momentum, to establish what this series is going to be all about. It’s impressive to see guys like that do that dirty work. It’s raw emotion and it’s good."

Ference returned to the lineup after missing seven games with an injury and added an assist on the Bruins’ first goal, a David Krejci blast that nicked off the skate of Pittsburgh defenseman Paul Martin and squeezed through netminder Tomas Vokoun’s pads.

Bruins coach Claude Julien gave the matter little thought, which is most often how these incidents are viewed from the winning side.

"I didn't see everything happen except that there was a fight. I saw Sidney [Crosby] push our goaltender as he's skating off," Julien said.

"This is playoff hockey. Those things are going to happen. You don't whine or complain about it, you just deal with it. What we had to deal with tonight was winning a hockey game. That's all that mattered."

Nine times in their first 11 postseason games, the Penguins scored four or more goals. They did so with a relentless forecheck and at times uncontainable skill. In the latter stages of the New York Islanders series and for long stretches against Ottawa in the second round, the Penguins dictated pace, imposing their will upon the game.

One wondered then how the Bruins would or could contain that kind of offensive might, how they might grab the tiller themselves.

As it turned out, they did it by winning the patience game and goading the Penguins into a kind of emotional space they are far better to avoid.

"It’s tough. They’re letting a lot go out there. The more and more it gets like that, the more it’s going to escalate," said Crosby, who was whistled for two minor penalties.

"Keep letting guys do that stuff, they’re just going to push the envelope," he added. "That’s something we obviously want to stay away from but it’s kind of a natural thing when it gets like that."

You never know at the start of a series how the two elements are going to mix.

These two teams have little in the way of relevant history and yet the heightened tension, the short tempers, the borderline and across-the-line hits and post-whistle scrums suggested teams that have had a long-simmering feud that quickly boiled over onto the brightly lit ice.

While there were obvious signs of rust -- to be anticipated when the league inexplicably delayed the start of the series until Saturday evening, giving the two teams a week off from playoff action -- there was no rust in the emotion department.

That the emotion turned ugly and thus prompted more bad blood was, if not inevitable, then at least not unexpected.

Cooke crunched Adam McQuaid from behind into the end boards and earned a five-minute major and a game misconduct for hitting from behind before the second period was two minutes old.

Although Julien said during an in-game interview he believed McQuaid might have put himself in a vulnerable position, it doesn’t absolve Cooke, of all people, from understanding what is a borderline hit.

That Marchand was whistled for a potentially dangerous hit from behind on Neal but received only a two-minute minor enraged the sold-out CONSOL Energy Center crowd, although the hit had much less velocity than the one administered by Cooke.

Although the penalties had little bearing on the outcome of the game -- the two teams combined to go 0-for-8 with the man advantage, including a three-minute power play the Bruins enjoyed after the Cooke major -- they were certainly part of the emotional tapestry of the evening.

"As far as the emotion, I don’t know, it definitely wasn’t what we had in the Ottawa series but after what happened at the end of the second there, maybe it’ll ramp up," Orpik suggested.

If that’s the case, hang onto your hats for Game 2 on Monday.


PITTSBURGH -- When it was done and the Pittsburgh Penguins had brushed aside the valiant but ultimately overmatched Ottawa Senators, one word came to mind to describe both Game 5 and the series: devastating.

In a game that built slowly to yet another impressive offensive crescendo, the Penguins once again flashed all of their considerable credentials in crushing the Senators 6-2 to advance to the Eastern Conference finals against either the Boston Bruins or New York Rangers.

"We're playing probably the best team in the league, and we're trying and trying, but we have to pay for every little mistake, and that's why they are where they are, and we're standing here," said Senators defenseman and defending Norris Trophy winner Erik Karlsson.

He said he can’t recall facing a team as dangerous.

"Probably not since back in the days when I played the video game," he said.

Ottawa coach Paul MacLean added that his team had learned from the Penguins about what it takes to get to the next level.

"They really had us on our heels for almost every game," MacLean said. "I think we really got a little bit of a lesson of what it really takes to continue to play in the Stanley Cup playoffs from a very good team."

"I hope they don’t bill us for the clinic," MacLean quipped. "They didn’t step off the pedal one time, and that’s what it takes."

After losing a lead late in regulation and then losing in double-overtime in Game 3, the Penguins simply washed over the defenseless Senators like a great wave. Just when one wondered if Ottawa could unnerve the favored Penguins with their Game 3 heroics, the Penguins outscored them 13-5 in the next (and final) two games.

"We got to our game a lot. I think that the depth we had showed. Different guys chipping in," said captain Sidney Crosby, who had one assist in Game 5.

"I think all the way through we didn’t have too many lulls where we lost a lot of momentum at any point. Giving up that late one in Game 3 was really something that could have changed things, [but] we bounced back in Game 4 and had a great effort and here tonight to finish it off. So, yeah, I think we gave ourselves a chance with our consistency."

If the Rangers and/or Bruins were watching Game 5, one couldn’t blame them for shuddering at the surgical precision the Penguins displayed, especially when presented an opportunity to move on to their first conference finals since winning the Stanley Cup in 2009.

The Penguins got an early goal from fourth-line winger Brenden Morrow after a terrific job of forechecking by Matt Cooke and a heads-up pass from defenseman Mark Eaton -- hardly the three names that come to mind when you think "explosive."

Morrow returned to the Game 5 lineup after missing Game 4 and Eaton was a healthy scratch at the start of this series. Yet that is the hallmark of this team. Eight different players scored goals in Games 4 and 5.

As was the case in the first two games of the series, the Penguins scored early to force the Senators to play catch-up, once again lapping Ottawa with a relentless offensive attack combined with a diligent defense that did not allow the Senators any sustained pressure.

Throughout the five-game set, the Penguins outscored Ottawa 22-11, lest anyone suggest this was fire-wagon, trading-chances hockey. It wasn’t, which represents a marked difference between this series and the six-game series the Penguins played against the New York Islanders to start the playoffs.

"I think our desperation’s there [defensively]," Crosby said. "I think we find out pretty quickly that it’s not that enjoyable to play in your own end a lot. We had times, especially in the first round, where it took away from our offense because we were having to play in our own end. I think the more diligent we are, the more opportunities we’re going to get offensively, and that’s a lot more of the game we want to play."

Defensive specialist Cooke, who enjoyed a strong series against the Senators, said they must continue to think defense first.

"I think that the biggest thing for us is to make sure that we harness the way that we play defense, so that’s first, and we believe and feel that we’re going to get our opportunities offensively but we just need to take care of the other end first," Cooke said.

Although he is almost an afterthought, netminder Tomas Vokoun once again did exactly what was asked of him, stopping 29 of 31 shots to run his record to an impressive 6-1 since taking over for Marc-Andre Fleury in Game 5 of the opening round. Vokoun has an unbelievable .941 save percentage in seven games.

"I don’t look at it any different than before the first game," Vokoun said. "It always feels like it’s a tryout and, once you stumble, you never know what’s going to happen. Like I said, it doesn’t matter. I’m part of the team and we’re here to win, whoever’s in the net, as long as we [are] winning, that’s the most important thing."

The idea, then, is that the Penguins have the tools and the mindset to play any way an opponent wants. But the reality is that as this series went along, whether it’s borne out of defensive responsibility or not, the Penguins are operating at an offensive level unknown in recent playoff years. Friday’s game marked the ninth time in 11 games this spring they have scored at least four goals.

James Neal, who struggled through the first round and early into the second with just one goal, has now erupted for five goals and two assists in the past two games thanks to a Game 5 hat trick. The final goal, which closed out the scoring, was a thing of beauty as he turned Karlsson inside out with a toe-drag and then ripped a shot past Ottawa netminder Craig Anderson.

"So much is made [of] when guys don’t get points, but we depend on 20 guys in this room and there’s going to be times when they might not get on the score sheet and we win games, and it’s the playoffs, and that’s what’s most important," Cooke said.

"We know that James Neal’s going to score goals. No one in this room worried about it. I think the fact that he’s done what he did the last two games speaks to that."

This is uncharted territory for Neal. Since Dallas traded him to Pittsburgh in a 2011 deadline deal, the Penguins have been knocked out in the first round by Tampa and then Philadelphia.

"Just through the last couple of years of going out in the first round, you gain experience from that," Neal said. "You know what happens, you know how fast things can change. I think you saw a desperate team but a confident team as well. It was fun to play tonight; we knew we had a job to do and we did it and that’s the satisfying part.

"Any time you win, it’s fun and it’s exciting. We got a great group of guys in this locker room that come to the rink every day with a smile on their face and enjoyed it. It’s a great atmosphere to be around and we have a lot of fun with it and it shows on the ice how close everybody is and how exciting it is to play with the Penguins. It’s just an awesome experience."

PITTSBURGH –- Flash back to the third period of Game 5, 2007 Stanley Cup finals.

The Ottawa Senators are sunk. They are trailing in the third period of what would be a 6-2 loss to the Anaheim Ducks in the final game in that final series, and the fans at the Honda Center were buzzing at the anticipation of their team's first Stanley Cup win.

But although the inevitable seemed to have sapped the entire Senators team of any remaining strength, one player doggedly pursued the puck, steadfastly tried to create scoring chances, never gave up, never quit.

His name? Daniel Alfredsson.

A year later, the Senators would be the underdogs in a first-round series against an emerging Pittsburgh Penguins team. In spite of injuries that kept him out of the first two games of that series, Alfredsson returned to the lineup for the final two games of what would be a sweep at the hands of the Penguins.

Although it was obvious he was playing through significant pain, Alfredsson was again the last Senator to concede defeat, the last one to take a knee.

We have watched up close as Alfredsson has patiently answered question after question after gut-wrenching playoff defeats. We have seen him accept blame for disappointments, sometimes when it’s been earned and other times because it was the right thing to do.

[+] EnlargeDaniel Alfredsson
Andre Ringuette/Getty ImagesThe admiration and adulation for Daniel Alfredsson was obvious during All-Star weekend in 2012.
We have seen him bask in the glow of adoration at an All-Star Game held in Ottawa in 2012, as he captained one of the teams in the annual celebrity shinny.

Those are important touchstones as Alfredsson and his Senators face yet another long, uphill battle against the Penguins, against the backdrop that Game 5 might in fact be the classy Swede's final NHL game.

On Wednesday night, after Alfredsson and the Sens were whipped 7-3 by the Penguins and fell into a 3-1 series hole, the captain was asked whether it was probable that his team could win three straight games against the Penguins.

"Probably not," he told a group of reporters. "With their depth and power play right now, it doesn't look too good."

It is a sad reflection of our time, and perhaps the nature of sport, that a moment of raw candor from one of the game's most respected players -- and certainly the most popular Senator of all time -- has somehow morphed into a question about Alfredsson's commitment or leadership.

A little perspective, please.

If the Penguins do close out the Senators on Friday night in Pittsburgh, we are relatively certain the last player fighting for that last loose puck will be Alfredsson.

It is who he is. It is woven into the fabric of his being.

That he simply spoke the truth after his team was torched for four goals in the third period of Game 4 by the most fearsome offensive team in the postseason after taking a 2-1 lead out of the first period, is something that should be admired if not celebrated.

The Penguins have outscored the Senators 16-9 in the first four games of this second-round series. In three of the four games, the powerful Penguins have scored at least four goals.

The Pittsburgh power play -- which features Sidney Crosby, Evgeni Malkin, Jarome Iginla and James Neal, among others -- is the most deadly of any team in the playoff field and has scored 12 times in 10 games thus far this postseason.

Although there was discussion of the context in which his words were used, give credit to Alfredsson, who reiterated to reporters in Ottawa on Thursday that he believes his team is facing a tough road.

"There’s no denying we're in tough. Was it taken out of context? Probably, but that's fine. I can handle that," Alfredsson said before the team chartered its way to Pittsburgh for Friday's win-or-pack-'em-up tilt.

But if people think he was implying that he and the Sens have quit, they're wrong, Alfredsson said.

"If you ask anyone and they looked at our series, I don't think there's too many people that would pick us right now. That's what I meant,” he said. "Maybe I should have continued right away where I left off on the answer that I don't doubt one second that we're going to come out with a great effort tomorrow."

The playoffs are an emotional time for anyone involved, but when you're a 40-year-old who is approaching the finish line in a career that should and will earn Hall of Fame discussion, the dynamics are even more powerful.

Much was made of the fact that Alfredsson paused before leaving the ice after Game 4 to collect the puck from one of the linesmen. Who could blame him?

He has played his entire career with the Senators and is their leader in every important offensive category. Why shouldn't he have a memento if Wednesday's game was indeed his last home game?

Alfredsson hasn't said whether he will retire at the end of the season, and he acknowledged that he wasn't exactly sure why he took the puck with him.

"There's no specific reason. Could this be my last playoffs, could this be my last season? I don't know. I don't collect sticks or keep a lot of memorabilia at home, but there's no specific reason," he said.

A year ago, when the Senators lost in the first round of the playoffs to the New York Rangers, Alfredsson stopped the team bus as it was leaving Madison Square Garden to shake hands with a group of Senators fans. Some saw it as a sign that he was done.

It didn't turn out that way, of course. And who knows how the rest of this series will turn out?

One thing's for sure: The Penguins are well aware of Alfredsson's comments and don't believe they will have any impact on the kind of game the Senators will play Friday.

"I think that Ottawa's a team that we know has no quit. They're not going to stop coming at us," said Matt Cooke, who had a strong showing in Game 4 that included drawing an important penalty that led to a power-play goal and setting up a short-handed goal by Pascal Dupuis.

"I think he's a smart guy. He's a great leader for their team and organization, and I'm sure that he’s got the right intentions and motives behind his comments," Cooke said of Alfredsson.

Neal also knew of the comments, but likewise believed them to have little to do with the effort he's expecting from a Senators team that has walked tall in the face of adversity all season.

"I don't think by any means are they going to give up or roll over," said Neal, who broke out in Game 4 with a pair of goals and an assist. "We know that, and you saw it from their coach when he walked up to the podium last night and said they're coming to Pittsburgh with their best game and they're coming to play, and we expect that."

Neal was referring to the dramatic postgame summation given by Ottawa coach Paul MacLean, who simply held up the score sheet and said that all anyone needed to know about the game was on the sheet and that the Senators were going to Pittsburgh to play a game.

On Thursday, MacLean had little to say about Alfredsson’s comments.

"The playoffs are hard all the time, it's just harder [now]," MacLean said. "Daniel, I've got no issue with that."

Neither should anyone else.

Alfredsson has earned that kind of respect. As has been the case for many years, we have little doubt that people will remember Alfredsson's play far longer than his words at the end of a tough night in Ottawa.


OTTAWA -- A crucial fourth game that began with an optimistic bang for the Ottawa Senators ended with an embarrassing whimper.

There was something more than a little symmetric about the Penguins’ emphatic 7-3 victory in Game 4: A playoff year that began with a whimper for sniper James Neal took a decidedly more upbeat turn in Game 4 on Wednesday night as he scored twice, including the game winner, and added an assist.

It is a turn of events that bodes ill not just for the seemingly overmatched Senators, but those teams that might yet encounter the Penguins this playoff year.

"He’s a guy who just needs one. And he’s been talking about that and felt that last game, but he came through for us and was a big factor -- his line and the power play -- in getting those two goals," coach Dan Bylsma said after the game.

Trying to force the heavily favored Pittsburgh Penguins into a best-of-three showdown by evening this Eastern Conference semifinal at two games apiece, the Senators got a dramatic early short-handed goal from Milan Michalek and took a 2-1 lead into the second period. But they were ultimately overwhelmed as the Penguins scored twice in 40 seconds early in the second and then chased starting netminder Craig Anderson for the second time in three games with four more in the first half of the third period.

By the end of the evening, with the Scotiabank Place faithful gamely chanting for the Senators, it was difficult to recall that this game started with such promise for the home side.

Although the place was fairly buzzing early on as the first period went along, it was Pittsburgh that carried the play, and the best line on the ice by a wide margin throughout the night was the trio of Neal, Jarome Iginla and Evgeni Malkin.

This was noteworthy because Bylsma has tried different ways to get his considerable offensive pieces in the right place this spring. And there has been much discussion and tinkering aimed at getting it just so.

Much of the focus has been on Iginla, given his stature in the game and the drama that accompanied his acquisition by the Penguins at the trade deadline. But, really, the key is Neal.

While Iginla spent time playing with Sidney Crosby and Pascal Dupuis and flip-flopped from one wing to another, Neal’s slow start to the playoffs made finding the right groove more difficult.

Slowed by a concussion late in the regular season, Neal played in Game 1 against the Islanders and then missed the next two. He had just one goal heading into Game 4 and looked out of sorts.

The fact that he had scored just three postseason goals in 12 games was no doubt adding to the angst.

But on Wednesday night, Neal was the dangerous offensive presence that saw him score 61 times during his last 120 regular-season games.

He actually looked like he’d scored early in the first period when a shot beat Anderson but caromed off the inside of the post. But with 5:04 left in the first period, Neal stepped into a hard wrist shot off the draw after Iginla had tied up center Zack Smith and beat Anderson to tie the game at 1-1.

"That first one we got was a pretty special shot by James. I don’t think very many guys can pull that one off to be able to get the first one by him," Bylsma said.

Although the Senators answered quickly with a Kyle Turris goal to regain a one-goal lead, the Penguins would begin their dismantling of the Senators with two goals in 40 seconds in the first two minutes of the second period.

Neal would earn an assist on the second of those goals, and later he would add what would turn out to be the winning goal on the power play, pounding home the carom of a Crosby shot from the opposite side of the net.

"I thought you saw it from Nealer right away. It was good that he got the goal right away, because I think he got that goal and you could kind of see his confidence grow exponentially right away and the rest of his game started getting a lot better," defenseman Brooks Orpik said.

"Not just his offensive game," Orpik added. "He looked like he had more jump and his defensive game was better and he was just going. I think it just shows you how big confidence is in this game."

How demoralizing was the Penguins’ onslaught?

Ottawa captain Daniel Alfredsson, who reached the 100-point plateau in playoff scoring with a power-play goal with the game out of reach in the third, was asked whether it was feasible to win three straight against this Pittsburgh team.

"Probably not," he answered with brutal candor. "With their depth and their power play right now, it doesn’t look too good.

"I’m just saying that I don’t think there’s much going for us. Maybe that’s the way we like it."

Senators coach Paul MacLean didn’t take any questions from reporters but simply held up a copy of the scoring summary.

"I think everything’s right here," he said.

"It’s 7-3. See you in Pittsburgh. We’re going to Pittsburgh and we’re coming to play. Have a good night," he said before exiting the press room.

In the short term, if the triumphant return of James Neal to form Game 4 has any traction, it means big trouble for an Ottawa Senators team now down to its last out in this series and its season.

"Felt good, obviously,” said Neal who is now enjoying his deepest playoff run as an NHLer. "I felt a little snake-bitten after having some good looks and not being able to finish. But our team’s been playing well, so as we’re winning; I’m not too worried about scoring. But it did feel good to chip in tonight.

"You’re always tough on yourself, you know what you’re capable of but, at the same time, if you start gripping the stick too tight and putting too much pressure on yourself, you’re just making it harder.

"You just want to enjoy this and have fun with it. It’s exciting playing in the playoffs and being in the second round and playing with a special group of guys. Saying that we found a way to get another win and going into our rink in a great spot."

But, big picture, if the Penguins do close out the Senators and the Boston Bruins do not have another epic playoff collapse having built a 3-0 series lead against the New York Rangers, it sets up an intriguing matchup in the Eastern Conference finals between two teams whose strength is a balanced attack.

If Neal and his linemates, who on this night combined for four goals and an assist, are rolling, that will present a mighty challenge for whomever they might face.

"Those guys have been playing good hockey and I think in the playoffs obviously everyone’s under the microscope, especially the guys that score a lot," Crosby said. "So to see them score, I mean, that’s great, but they’ve been doing a lot of good things for us."


PITTSBURGH -- The Pittsburgh Penguins showed up for work Wednesday morning wearing T-shirts with the No. 4 on the back, a nod to the immediate task of winning four games to get out of the first round of the playoffs.

No word on whether those same shirts will be worn Thursday with the "4" crossed out and replaced by a "3" after the Penguins whipped the New York Islanders 5-0 in Game 1 of their Eastern Conference quarterfinal series.

They’re just T-shirts, of course: some fabric and a little lettering, including the phrase, "Here We Go."

But the shirts speak to a mindset, a narrowing of the focus to the task at hand.

When you are a team as deep and talented as the Penguins -- and when there is as much discussion about a long playoff run, a possible trip to the Stanley Cup finals, another championship -- it might be easy to forget about first things first.

If you look at the big picture, if you look at what is needed to win a Cup, "It’s a bit overwhelming," Pittsburgh forward Craig Adams said after Wednesday’s game.

And if you start thinking about that, "you’ll never get there," he said.

"Everyone wanted to hand us the Cup last year, and we saw how that turned out," Adams added.

And there’s the rub.

In an interview before Wednesday’s game, Pittsburgh GM Ray Shero went to great pains to reinforce that his team was very mindful of the Islanders, even though the Pens were the top seed in the Eastern Conference and the Isles the eighth seed.

"I know this team has a great deal of respect for the Islanders," Shero said. "There’s no way we’ll be underestimating them."

Those are the kinds of sentiments that are on display when you’re coming off a 2012 playoff season that really ended before it began with the Penguins blowing a 3-0 lead against Philadelphia in Game 1 and quickly falling behind 3-0 in the series en route to a six-game loss. It was the second consecutive one-and-done playoff spring for the Penguins, and they have won just one playoff round since winning the Stanley Cup in 2009.

So you can understand if there is an emphasis on the details this time around.

"We’ve been preaching that all year," Adams said. "I think we’ve been humbled."

After one game, it would appear the message has sunk in, as the Penguins methodically took apart an inexperienced Islanders team that is playing in the postseason for the first time since 2007.

The Pens took advantage of an early power play to go up 1-0 after a terrific play by Beau Bennett, who cut in from the right side and roofed a shot over veteran netminder Evgeni Nabokov. Bennett wouldn’t be in the lineup if it weren’t for the fact that doctors declined to let captain Sidney Crosby suit up for Game 1.

Talk about taking advantage of your opportunities: Bennett scored in his first-ever playoff game.

The Penguins would add another power-play goal early in the second period by Kris Letang before Pascal Dupuis, the king of even-strength goals, added two while the teams were playing five aside. Tanner Glass rounded out the scoring with his first-ever postseason goal.

Defensively, the Pens killed off four Islander power plays and limited the Isles to 26 shots, providing netminder Marc-Andre Fleury with ample protection. Fleury, who endured a nightmare series last postseason against the Flyers, earned his sixth postseason shutout.

"Everything went great tonight," Dupuis said. "Yes, we did play the right way, but you have to keep saying to yourself it’s only 1-0."

If there was cause for concern for the Penguins, it was the loss of James Neal, who got tangled up with Travis Hamonic early in the second period and did not return. There was no information on his status for Game 2 Friday.

Also, Jussi Jokinen, who added two assists and continues to be a point machine since coming over from Carolina at the trade deadline, went off the ice gingerly after a collision with Islanders forward Marty Reasoner, who was assessed a kneeing major with 2:10 left in the game.

The Islanders, meanwhile, looked like a team whose most important players (outside Nabokov) were playing in their first playoff game. Reasoner, playing in his 24th career postseason game, was the player with the most playoff experience among Islander skaters, and he’d been a healthy scratch for the final 10 regular-season games.

John Tavares, who figures to be among the finalists for the Hart Trophy as the league’s MVP, was a nonfactor, finishing the night without a shot. Likewise, Brad Boyes and Matt Moulson weren’t the players who combined for 25 regular-season goals.

Head coach Jack Capuano said the team’s work ethic and determination weren’t what they had been during the final month of the regular season, when the Isles secured an unexpected playoff berth, and the execution was lacking.

Nabokov, a player Capuano referred to as an extension of the coaching staff given his experience, was given the hook just 1:51 into the second period after the Pens made it 4-0 with two goals in 32 seconds.

Although he was beaten twice by hard, high shots courtesy of Bennett and Letang on the power play, this loss wasn’t a function of poor goaltending. Instead, this was a loss that was, pure and simple, about one team being light years ahead of another in terms of getting the job done.

"Obviously, I think it was a little bit too easy for them, for the Penguins. All-around game has to be better. Better saves, more saves. I guess it’s got to start with me," Nabokov said.

"I’ve got to make key saves at the key times and give the guys a chance to battle. But the game was over basically at the beginning of the second period, it’s four-zip, and it’s really tough to come out of it against that type of team. So [I] have to find a way to tighten up and be better," he said.

Of course, as the Pens’ T-shirts remind us, this series is not the best of one.

The Islanders have a chance to regroup, and one imagines whatever nerves and butterflies might have invaded their bodies Wednesday will have dissipated by the time Game 2 rolls around Friday night.

"I don’t think anything is easy. You have to come out, and you have to work hard. It’s got to hurt to play; I heard somebody in the locker room actually say that: It’s got to hurt to play," Nabokov said.

"I think we have to come out next game, and we have to be ready, be more physical and just make it hard on them everywhere, every inch of the ice. We have to battle for every inch of the ice, everywhere. I think that’s the only way we can play with that team because, otherwise, they’re too skilled. They’re too good."

Giroux top player in jersey sales for January

February, 7, 2013
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Top player jersey sales on NHL.com for January, according to a Sports Business Daily story that cites Shop.NHL.com:

1 Flyers RW Claude Giroux
2 Blackhawks C Jonathan Toews
3 Penguins C Sidney Crosby
4 Rangers RW Ryan Callahan
5 Penguins LW James Neal
6 Penguins D Kris Letang
7 Sharks C Joe Thornton
8 Bruins D Zdeno Chara
9 Capitals LW Alex Ovechkin
10 Blues RW Vladimir Tarasenko
11 Red Wings C Pavel Datsyuk
12 Canucks C Ryan Kesler
13 Penguins C Evgeni Malkin
14 Rangers C Brad Richards
15 Blackhawks LW Patrick Sharp
16 Red Wings LW Henrik Zetterberg
17 Rangers G Henrik Lundqvist
18 Capitals C Nicklas Backstrom
19 Lightning C Steven Stamkos
20 Bruins RW Tyler Seguin
21 Blackhawks C Patrick Kane
22 Ducks RW Teemu Selanne
23 Blues RW T.J. Oshie
24 Kings G Jonathan Quick
25 Blackhawks RW Marian Hossa


PHILADELPHIA -- An already dire situation for the Pittsburgh Penguins -- down 3-0 in their first round playoff series with the Philadelphia Flyers -- has been made even more ominous with the suspension of three regulars, including 40-goal man James Neal.

The Penguins, outscored 20-12 in the first three games of this series, will be without Neal, who was suspended for one game by league disciplinarian Brendan Shanahan after he knocked down an unsuspecting Sean Couturier with a hard check even though the puck was nowhere nearby in the third period of Sunday’s 8-4 Philadelphia win. Later in that period, Neal also went after Claude Giroux, dazing him with a hit.

The Penguins will also be without Craig Adams, who was given an automatic one-game suspension for an instigator penalty earned in a late-game fight with Scott Hartnell. Arron Asham was given a four-game ban for his crosscheck to the face and throat of Brayden Schenn, whom he then punched after the Flyers forward fell to the ice.

The suspensions of Neal and Asham inexplicably took more than 48 hours after Game 3 to become public. Ironically, the decisions were then lost in the furor over an even more disturbing case in a spring of ugliness for the National Hockey League.

In Chicago, serial predator Raffi Torres of the Phoenix Coyotes left his feet to hit Chicago forward Marian Hossa after Hossa had made a pass in the neutral zone. Hossa lay motionless on the ice and was carried off on a stretcher.

Although it’s difficult to determine just what criteria Shanahan is using in handing down supplemental discipline in a chaotic opening week of the playoffs, the outcry around the league over player behavior and the league’s ineffectiveness at changing behavior is at a fever pitch.

The mayhem has become the story of the playoffs, blotting out terrific stories like the Florida Panthers’ come-from-behind win in Game 3 and the youthful Flyers’ domination of the Pens.

At least in Neal’s case, this is a punishment that has some consequence.

One can only assume Neal will feel a pinch of remorse if he’s wearing a suit in the press box Wednesday night and his team is swept from the playoffs. Surely contributing to that embarrassing fact through his own selfish behavior by running amok, targeting defenseless Flyers players, might prompt a change in behavior.

Sadly, given the nonstop carnage of this postseason, one despairs that anyone will learn a lesson of any kind.

Temper, temper, Sidney

April, 15, 2012
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PHILADELPHIA -- At some point Penguins center Sidney Crosby sent Jakub Voracek’s glove away as he tried to pick it up during one of the late-game dust-ups.

After the game a reporter asked Crosby is that was a reflection of the team’s frustration.

“I don’t like any guy on their team. His glove was near me, he went to pick it up and I pushed it,” Crosby said.

“Because why, I’m sorry?” the reporter said.

“I don’t like him,” Crosby said.

“Why don’t you like him?” Crosby was asked.

”Because I don’t like him. I don’t like any guy on their team. So ...,” Crosby said.

A few minutes later, Crosby went back to the incident.

“Guys are emotional and there’s a lot of stuff going on out there," he said. "There’s no reason to explain. I don’t have to sit here and explain why I pushed a glove away. They’re doing a lot of things out there, too. You know what? We don’t like each other. Was I going to sit there and pick up his glove for him? What was I supposed to do?”

The same reporter suggested he could have skated away.

“Skate away? OK, well, I didn’t that time,” Crosby shot back. “It’s the playoffs and a lot of things happen out there from both sides. Everyone is guilty of it. Nobody is blaming anyone here. It’s heated out there and that’s what the playoffs are like.”

***

The strange sight of Sidney Crosby and Claude Giroux dropping the gloves in the first period of Game 3 harkened back to the now-famous fight during the 2004 Stanley Cup finals between Calgary’s Jarome Iginla and Tampa’s Vincent Lecavalier.

“I thought it was great. In the end, that’s really playoff hockey, isn’t it?” Philadelphia coach Peter Laviolette said. “A couple of the best players in the world dropping the gloves and going at it? Would I rather have [Giroux] keep his gloves on? Sure. But when he’s fighting Sidney Crosby, that’s the playoff hockey, that’s this series. In the end, that’s probably what it’s about. You get guys out there and they want to win on both sides and they’ll do anything to do it. You’ve got to be ready to play at that level.”

***

While the Flyers and their fans were enraged there was no call when James Neal leveled Sean Couturier in the third period, Neal said he tried to hold up.

“Yeah, I’m flying through the neutral zone, I’m regrouping, I didn’t even mean to hit him. I don’t know if the puck was in his feet or not or where it was. I let up as much as I could and it is what it is,” he said.

For his part, the Flyers' Brayden Schenn downplayed the incident with the Penguins' Arron Asham, even though it could have been more serious.

"It was just a hit. I didn't really see him coming at me, I didn't really expect a cross-check but that's what happened,” he said.

As for the shot while he was on the ice, Schenn said, “That's just his temper rising, nothing more than that. Really nothing really more than a cross-check and a punch."

Did he think it was dirty?

“I didn't expect it, that's for sure,” Schenn said.

PITTSBURGH -- If there's one guy in the Pittsburgh dressing room that's really looking forward to having a healthy Sidney Crosby in the lineup, it's relative newcomer James Neal.

The 24-year-old winger was acquired by the Penguins from the Dallas Stars at the trade deadline in March in a deal that was meant to answer the oft-asked question in Pittsburgh: who will play with Crosby or Evgeni Malkin?

Neal seemed like an ideal acquisition; he had size, good hands, a quick release and had proven himself to be a consistent NHL scorer with three 20-goal campaigns.

The problem for Neal and the Penguins was that Malkin and Crosby were both injured when he arrived. Neal struggled, scoring just once in 20 regular-season games and adding just one goal in seven playoff contests as the Penguins were ousted by Tampa in the first round.

"Of course it was frustrating," Neal said Friday. "I want to come in here and score goals and help the team win, and it was tough finding the back of the net. But it's just kind of a build-up for this year, give myself a fresh start. I had a good summer and [I'm] just ready to go."

If he does play with Crosby, the left-handed Neal would likely move to the right side, a switch he's prepared to make. He has also had a small taste of working with Crosby during recent informal on-ice workouts.

"You know how good he is and what he does on the ice, it's unbelievable," Neal said. "It definitely would be an unbelievable chance to be able to play with him and hopefully we can do well together."

Whether it was stage fright or difficulty adjusting to a new team and new systems that contributed to Neal's lack of production, GM Ray Shero is expecting a much different player this season.

"There's no reason for him to score two goals in 27 games. Seriously. This guy's too good," Shero told ESPN.com on Friday. "He's a motivated player. It's a good challenge for him."

Injury updates from Penguins camp

• Malkin said his surgically repaired knee is about 90 percent and he is expected to take part in all training camp drills.

• Brooks Orpik, recovering from offseason surgery to repair an abdominal muscle tear, is close to 100 percent and cleared to practice, but coach Dan Bylsma will ease him into training-camp workouts.

"We'll see as he goes along with the level that he's comfortable with," Bylsma said. "He hasn't really put together days where he's been in contact and in the bustle of practice. So we'll see as he goes along, but he'll be out there participating."

• Craig Adams, who underwent an appendectomy last month, is expected to be at, or close to, 100-percent health.

• Dustin Jeffrey, rehabbing a knee injury, is cleared to practice but not cleared for contact.

• Boris Valabik, the former Atlanta Thrashers prospect, is not ready for action as he recovers from a knee injury.

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