Pop quiz time: The Pittsburgh Penguins have played 14 games this season – who is leading the team in goals? Nope, it’s not Sidney Crosby or Evgeni Malkin. Third-year Penguin James Neal leads the team with 10 goals, good enough to tie for second place in the NHL in 2013.
Coming off a season that saw Neal score 40 goals and record 81 points, this shouldn’t be a huge surprise. While the former Dallas Stars forward was a big help last season with Crosby on the sideline, he is not slowing down this year and making his case as one of the best scorers in the league.
Crosby leads the team with 20 points, while Malkin and Chris Kunitz each have 16. Neal sits fourth with 13 points, eight of them coming on the power play. He has game-winners against the Ottawa Senators, Washington Capitals and Philadelphia Flyers this season, second only to Eric Staal of the Carolina Hurricanes (4). After nearly doubling his best numbers for a single season in 2011-12 Neal should have been on everyone’s radar heading into the lockout.
Neal didn’t play overseas during the work stoppage, but appears to be no worse off as a result. A second round pick of the Stars in 2005, Neal had NHL seasons of 37, 55 and 45 points before breaking out. The Penguins sent Alex Goligoski to the Stars for Neal and Matt Niskanen, and as Goligoski struggles this season it is pretty clear who got the better end of the deal. B
eing surrounded by some of the best players in the game seems to have been just what Neal needed, and the Penguins are reaping the rewards. They must also be holding out hope that playing on a line with Neal and Malkin can get newly-acquired winger Zach Boychuk to produce at the NHL level.