James Neal didn’t know what to expect after an offseason trade sent him from an established group with multiple stars in Pittsburgh to a Nashville club undergoing a major overhaul.
His contributions have helped the Predators become a surprise contender, and he insists he’ll be treating his first visit to the Steel City since the deal as just another trip as Nashville looks to avoid a sixth straight loss to the Penguins on Sunday.
Neal flourished in three-plus seasons with Pittsburgh, scoring at least 21 goals in each full campaign and recording a career-high 40 in 2011-12. Following the disappointment of a second-round playoff exit, general manager Jim Rutherford dealt Neal to Nashville for Patric Hornqvist and Nick Spaling to gain depth on the wing.
The Predators (31-11-6) were more than happy to acquire the high-scoring Neal, who has combined with fellow newcomer Mike Ribeiro, standout youngster Filip Forsberg and first-year coach Peter Laviolette to help guide Nashville to the top of the top of the Central Division.
Nashville, though, is 1-2-2 since winning five straight after falling 3-0 at Colorado on Friday.
"Our focus is trying to find a win every night," Neal, who has 16 goals and 12 assists, told the team’s official website. "Teams are fighting to get in the playoffs every night here, so we’re going to be coming up against a lot of desperate hockey clubs. We have to be just as desperate as they are."
Neal faced his former club for the first time Oct. 25, and the Penguins picked up a 3-0 victory in Nashville for its fifth straight win in the series. He said that contest is helping make this trip to Pittsburgh much easier.
"I’m not too worried about it or thinking about it too much," Neal said. "I think playing them in Nashville kind of washed that away and I really haven’t looked back. We’ve been having great success here, and it’s really all I’m focused on."
Pittsburgh (28-13-8) likely won’t get caught up in the moment either as it fights to get back on track. It has gone 2-3-2 since last winning back-to-back games on Jan. 10 and 13.
Simon Despres scored in overtime to give the Penguins a 2-1 victory Friday.
”The way things have been going lately, we could have just accepted this as a loss, but we all stayed with it,” said Chris Kunitz, who tied it with a power-play goal with 3:11 left in regulation. ”We stayed with it, stayed focused, kept the pressure on.”
Sidney Crosby had an assist – his only point in his last four games. He had a goal and two assists in the first meeting with Nashville, while Evgeni Malkin scored and Marc-Andre Fleury made 25 saves to give him a 1.19 goals-against average while winning five straight against the Predators.
Hornqvist, who has 14 goals and 16 assists, had an assist in his first contest against his former team after spending his first six seasons with Nashville. He has one goal in three games following an 11-game absence with a lower-body injury.
Malkin will miss his fifth straight contest with a groin injury but could return Wednesday against Edmonton.
Nashville goaltender Pekka Rinne remains out with a knee problem, and Marek Mazanec made his first start of the season against the Avalanche. Carter Hutton, who is 2-1-2 with a 3.40 GAA since Rinne went down, could be back in net for this contest.