Predators' Neal feelin' good about his game these days
Nashville Predators forward James Neal, left, celebrates with P.K. Subban after scoring against the Anaheim Ducks in overtime of Game 1 of the Western Conference final Friday, May 12, 2017, in Anaheim, Calif. (AP Photo/Chris Carlson)
ANAHEIM — A day after scoring the overtime winner in Game 1 — his third goal in the last four games — a smiling James Neal said he’s feeling confident about his game.
Certainly, he’s feeling better than he did in the first round of the playoffs, when the Nashville Predators forward went four games without a goal. Back then, his stick felt chest freezer cold and every puck fired on net seemed to be the size of a beach ball. But then, just like that, he found his touch again.
Neal, who is tied with a team-leading four goals, can’t explain it. All he knows is that he doesn’t want it to end.
“I think you just feel good about your game,” he said of his hot streak. “You’re getting the looks, you’re getting the shots. You have that patience with the puck and you feel like you’re dangerous all over the ice. It’s like being in the zone. When you’re like that, you feel like you can put the puck in from anywhere.”
Neal might have added that food tastes better and the sun seems brighter these days. That his sleeps have been more restful. It’s like that when things are going your way. Everything you touch turns to gold.
Of course, it doesn’t last forever. Neal knows that better than most.
Snipers, even ones that reach the 40-goal mark as Neal did four years ago, are a streaky bunch. They stay cold as fast as they heat up. Corey Perry has one goal in his last nine games and Ryan Kesler has one goal in the entire playoffs.
Neal might be one of the hottest scorers right now, but it wasn’t long ago when he was wondering when — or if — the next goal would come.
During a disastrous 19-game stretch that lasted from February to April, Neal managed just one goal. He then snapped it by going on a three-game scoring streak, but still finished the season third on the team with 23 goals.
Even in these playoffs, Neal’s stick has been hot as much as it’s been cold. He went the entire first round without a goal, but scored three times in six games against the St. Louis Blues in the second round. The fact that he began Game 1 of the Western Conference final with an overtime goal could be a sign that he is continuing to heat up.
“That’s the right time of the year. We need that,” said Predators head coach Peter Laviolette. “We’ve gotten contributions from everybody, but I know James is a guy that can be a difference maker like he has been. To be chipping in points is a good thing.
“Sometimes that can come and go in cycles. If somebody can get hot, they can stay hot for a little bit. I liked his game (Friday) night. He was physical and was trying to play that power forward game. He’s the guy who you want to get that pass in the critical moment of the game.”
It’s not just that the puck is going in for Neal, it’s that he’s getting the puck on net. He had six shots in Game 1 against the Ducks. His last one, a one-timer that ricocheted off Perry’s back, was impressive because of where it came from.
P.K. Subban had the puck and wanted to shoot, but once he “wound up, everyone was diving and legs were trying to get in the way of the shot.” So he passed it to Neal, who happened to be parked off to the side in a shooting position.
“Everyone talks about the pass, but you can’t make the pass unless the guy makes the effort to get open and create that lane,” said Subban. “(Neal) did a good job of getting open and I just tried to put it in a place where he could shoot it.
“You know what, he’s so clutch and obviously his ability to finish is a big part of the reason why he’s had such a good career and scored so many goals in this league. He does it just as well as any other goal-scorer in this league. When he’s open, you just try to get him the puck as much as you can.”
That is, as long as it keeps going in.
That’s the thing about a hot streak. It can vanish as quickly as it appears. For now, however, Neal cannot seem to do any wrong.
“For sure, it gives you confidence,” he said. “For any goal scorer, scoring in the playoffs is emotional. It’s an amazing feeling. The way your teammates come after you, how exciting the crowd is, just everything about it is a lot of fun. It definitely gives you a big boost.”
STAYIN’ OUT OF THE BOX, TOO
While James Neal has been scoring some big-time goals lately, what is equally impressive is that he hasn’t been taking any big-time penalties.
That used to be the problem for the sometimes-undisciplined Nashville Predators forward. In his final year in Pittsburgh, Neal racked up 24 penalty minutes in 13 playoff games.
It was a costly style of playing and it might have resulted in Neal’s departure from the Penguins.
This year, Neal had 35 penalty minutes in 70 games — his lowest in a full season. At the same time, he hasn’t toned down his physical play, as Anaheim Ducks defenceman Brandon Montour realized first-hand after getting flattened by a Neal bodycheck in Game 1.
“I think it’s definitely something that I’ve tried to be better with,” said Neal, who has two penalties in this year’s post-season. “It’s emotional out there when you get whacked and guys are on you and you’re trying to get into areas to score and do the right things. You can get frustrated at times and tend to go to the box ... Just play whistle to whistle.”