Penguins-Hurricanes Preview

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

Saturday night.

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

nine.

“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

Hurricanes (5-8-3).

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

stanza.

“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.