James Neal is a major reason why the Pittsburgh Penguins are
atop the Eastern Conference despite Sidney Crosby’s absence.
Visiting the struggling Carolina Hurricanes isn’t likely to
change that, either.
Neal looks to continue his impressive start to the season and
help the Penguins hand the Hurricanes a fifth straight loss
Crosby is trying to return from a concussion that has sidelined
him since Jan. 5, but he’s already been ruled out until at least
Tuesday when Pittsburgh (10-3-3) hosts Colorado.
The Penguins are doing just fine without their superstar center,
tying Chicago for the most points in the NHL.
Neal, the team leader with 16 points, is picking up the scoring
slack with 11 goals, one back of league-leader Phil Kessel of
Toronto and half way to his total from last season. The left wing
had 21 goals with Dallas before getting one with the Penguins
following a three-player deal in February.
He scored a pair of power-play goals in a 3-1 win over the Stars
on Friday, helping the Penguins improve to 7-1-1 in their last
“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.”
Neal has three goals in his last three meetings with the
Pittsburgh’s Evgeni Malkin, who has scored all four of his goals
this season on the road, has 12 goals and 15 assists in 20 meetings
with the Hurricanes, including six and three, respectively, in a
sweep of the 2009 Eastern Conference finals.
Pittsburgh took three of four from Carolina last season, with
the teams splitting two meetings at RBC Center.
The Hurricanes are mired in a 2-5-2 stretch, getting outscored
18-6 during a four-game losing streak.
Carolina last dropped five consecutive games from Nov. 23-30,
2009, and the team showed few signs of being capable of avoiding
that in Friday’s 5-1 loss to the New York Rangers. The defensive
struggles continued as Cam Ward surrendered four third-period
goals, the first two coming nine seconds apart midway through the
“It’s 3-1, and we probably needed a timeout,” coach Paul Maurice
said. “I’m very disappointed with our effort. That was the turning
point for sure.”
It’s unclear if Maurice will stick with Ward in net since he’s
lost every game during the current skid behind a 5.02 goals-against
average. However, he’s 7-2-1 with a 2.07 GAA in 10 regular-season
home matchups with Pittsburgh.
If Ward is rested, Brian Boucher would get his first start since
a 5-1 loss at Philadelphia on Oct. 29. He’s 0-2-1 with a 4.14 GAA
in four games – three starts.
Jeff Skinner, the reigning Calder Trophy winner, has been held
without a point for two games after collecting four in the previous
three – all at home. The center’s six goals and 14 points lead the
Hurricanes, but he hasn’t managed a point while failing to score on
15 shots in four games against the Penguins.