It wasn't long ago when thoughts of James Neal produced heads shaking with frustration. The frustration quickly turned into annoyance whenever the puck was on his stick in the offensive zone. The potential to be great was all there, it just wouldn't manifest itself on the score sheet. Neal's worth on the team was questioned, but the questions seemed unfair since Neal was working without the two players meant to play with him: Sidney Crosby and Evgeni Malkin. I also found it difficult to be so critical of a player who put so much effort into every shift, but deep down, every Pittsburgh Penguins fan knew that working hard without results won't keep you on a team.
And Neal was entering a contract season.
The pressure was on as the season began. Would he continue down the frustrating, coming-up-just-short path, or would he turn his game around and bury those chances that came so often to his stick?
Pens fans received a quick answer when Neal netted the first Pens goal of the season against the Vancouver Canucks just over five minutes into the first period. A few took it as a fluke, especially since the goal itself was pretty flukey, but after five games, Neal is sitting pretty on top a league-leading 4 goals. His most recent came in the waning minutes of regulation against the Washington Capitals while on the power play. It was his second power play goal of the season, the most of any Penguin.
Speaking of the power play, I know many Pens fans are very pleased with its overall improvement. I know I can't remember the last time the Pens were scoring power play goals on a regular basis. They have scored power play goals in all but one game (Florida, but it's all good since Richard Park made up for it with his shorthanded goal). Looking at how much Neal turned his game around thus far, I've looked at the numbers to see if there is any pattern between Neal's improvement and the power play's.
I put together a small chart to illustrate Neal's performance on the power play in his last five games:
I have listed the time Neal has spent on the power play, how many power play points he scored that game, the Pens' efficiency rate that game and its overall percentage.
What you might immediately notice is the Pens' power play efficiency has been the highest when Neal has registered a point. Coincidence? Very possible, but I like to think not. Neal has been an unbelievable presence on the power play and after a sluggish start with the Penguins organization, he seems to have found his luck, and the net, more often than not.
Not to be overlooked, however, has been Malkin's influence on the power play. You could even argue that he is the reason for the improvement though it does seem to be more of a dual effort. If Neal registered points on a power play, so did Malkin; if one scored a power play goal, the other has claimed the primary assist. This should be to the surprise of none since there's more chemistry between Malkin and Neal than Madame Curie's lab.
Malkin has also been a huge factor in Neal's success, and the success of the power play, because the two games Neal did not register points happened to be the games Malkin missed from "soreness." The power play also had the lowest efficiency percentage in those two games as well.
Neal's problems last season, on top of joining a team with a new system, could be tied to the lack of playmakers in the lineup. Malkin's return could be exactly what the doctor ordered. Only time will tell if this pattern on the power play will keep up but I do think Neal is benefiting from the increased play-making talent on the roster and it has definitely shown during the man advantage.
I feel strange writing about the Pens' power play and not mention Kris Letang and the clinic he has put on, but that will be for another post.
With Crosby's return on the horizon, let's hope things keep getting better.