Playing against the team that traded him away nine months ago gave James Neal some extra motivation.
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And when the Pittsburgh Penguins had two goals waved off that Neal believed should have counted, he became even more determined.
Neal scored two power-play goals, both seconds after the Penguins had goals disallowed, and carried Pittsburgh to a 3-1 win over the Dallas Stars on Friday night.
”Of course when you play your former team, you want to do well,” Neal said. ”Especially with them doing so well and coming in here being a top team. It was a test for us and a test for them, and it feels good to be able to come out on top.”
The game matched the teams with the most points in their respective conferences. Pittsburgh is on top in the East, and Dallas leads the West.
Neal netted his 10th and 11th goals of the season to pull within one of the NHL lead, and Matt Cooke scored on a penalty shot in the third period as Pittsburgh won for the seventh time in nine games.
Eric Nystrom had a goal in his fifth consecutive game for Dallas, which had a four-game winning streak snapped.
There had been speculation that Penguins captain Sidney Crosby would make his season debut after being out since January because of a concussion, but he won’t return before Tuesday at the earliest.
Pittsburgh traded for Neal in February with the thought that he might fit on a line with Crosby, but he had only one goal in 20 games last season. Neal scored in the second and third periods.
”You could tell (Neal) was motivated,” Dallas captain Brendan Morrow said.
For the second consecutive home game – 15 days apart – the Penguins had a goal waved off. Late in the second period on Friday, Chris Kunitz was ruled to have gotten his stick up above the crossbar to deflect Evgeni Malkin’s shot.
”If it’s not a goal, you keep focused and go back out and do our job,” Kunitz said. ”It’s part of the game.”
Fans were still booing that call 24 seconds later when Neal scored on a snap shot from the left circle that found its way between Kari Lehtonen’s right arm and torso. The puck trickled over the goal line before Stars defenseman Nicklas Grossman was able to swat it away.
”It’s a quick shot back to reality,” Neal said of the disallowed goal. ”On the Jumbotron, both looked like good goals … We did a great job sticking with it.”
Neal nearly scored again at 6:56 of the third when he threw the puck toward the net from the right boards. It went in off Dallas defenseman Mark Fistric, and sent the sellout crowd into another premature celebration. But the call didn’t count because Kunitz made contact with Lehtonen.
However, 23 seconds later Neal did score after being set up by a quick pass from Malkin. Neal intended to feed a wide-open Kunitz, but the puck hit off Stars defenseman Trevor Daley’s stick and went into the net.
”I don’t know if I’ve ever seen a better response from a team and the guys both in preparing themselves to go back out when it was no-goal call, and in going out and executing the rest of the power play to get a total of four goals,” Penguins coach Dan Bylsma said. ”It’s pretty impressive, going back out there, not putting your head down and to get ready to execute.”
Cooke made it 3-1 2:09 later. Bylsma conceded that he initially was disappointed that the Penguins’ surging power play was denied an opportunity in lieu of a penalty shot. Cooke is an agitator with a reputation for dirty hits, who had never attempted a penalty shot before.
But after being pulled down by Daley while on a partial breakaway down the right wing, Cooke scored his fifth on the penalty shot. Cooke skated wide to the left, cut toward the net, made a move and beat Lehtonen using a forehand shot.
”Thankfully, we practice it a lot and I felt remotely comfortable out there,” Cooke said. ”I picked a move from the get-go and that’s what I was going to do. I stuck with it and was fortunate that it went in.”
Dallas entered with 22 goals in three games, but managed only 20 shots Friday. The Stars’ lone goal was scored by Nystrom off a feed from Dvorak.
Dallas played the final two periods without defenseman Alex Goligoski, who was in the trade that sent Neal to Pittsburgh. Goligoski, who had a heavily-bandaged thumb, was scheduled to have X-rays taken.
Stars coach Glen Gulutzan said he is expected to be out for a while.
The Stars played with only four defensemen for the final seven minutes of the second period, when Fistric went to the locker room after taking a puck to the face. He returned for the third.
”I don’t think we got off to the best start, and when you play four (defensemen) it’s tough,” Gulutzan said. ”But I think, all-in-all, we were outplayed from the start of the game.”
Marc-Andre Fleury made 19 saves, improving to 5-0 against Dallas and 6-0-1 in his past seven games. He has allowed only 10 goals in that span.
NOTES: The Stars haven’t won in Pittsburgh since Dec. 23, 2000. … Cooke’s goal was his 100th point with Pittsburgh. … The Penguins, who had a five-day break between games, are 5-0-2 against Western Conference teams. … Letang has an assist in five straight games. … Lehtonen lost a road game for the first time in six starts this season, falling to 11-2 overall. He has never beaten Pittsburgh in five tries.