Another season, another 20 goals for James Neal
When James Neal broke into the NHL with the Dallas Stars during the 2008-09 season, he scored 24 times. Not bad for a rookie.
All he's done in the following eight campaigns is hit the 20-goal mark eight more times, a feat few have ever accomplished.
When Neal tallied his 20th of the 2016-17 season on Monday night, a power-play goal to defeat the Winnipeg Jets 5-4 in overtime, he became one of six active NHLers to hit the 20-goal mark in each of their first nine seasons. Alex Ovechkin, Jaromir Jagr, Patrick Kane, Jonathan Toews and Thomas Vanek are the others, elite company to be sure.
But that's just what Neal does - find ways to put the puck in the net year after year, no matter the circumstances.
"You do think about it, and you try to be consistent every year," Neal said after Tuesday's practice. "Putting up 20 is a decent number, but you want to try to get better and get up to the 30 and the 40-goal mark. We've still got some games left, so hopefully I can keep scoring."
Neal did hit the 30-goal mark last season - 31 to be exact - and tallied 40 during the 2011-12 season with Pittsburgh. He's never had less than 21 goals across a full schedule, but even then, that total came in 2012-13 in a lockout-shortened campaign.
After going 10 games without a goal, Neal now has markers in back-to-back contests - both of them game-winners - for the first time since Jan. 22-24. Every player goes through streaks, and Neal is no different, but the signs would point to him heating up, and it couldn't come at a better time.
"You definitely get streaky and hot at different times, and when you see the puck go in, you're getting chances and your confidence is there," Neal said. "They come in waves and come in spurts. You just try to keep it going when you're feeling good."
Preds Head Coach Peter Laviolette can sense that as well, and right now, he knows Neal is a threat every time he's on the ice.
"Those guys that shoot the puck at the net all the time, they've got a great release," Laviolette said. "He's one of those guys that when he's finding the right areas, he's finding the release. He's proven over nine years that he can get it off and find the back of the net."
In addition to the goal-scoring prowess, Neal has served as an alternate captain for each of his three seasons in Nashville, serving as a leader for young players like Filip Forsberg to look up to. A 20, and sometimes 30-goal scorer himself, Forsberg has taken notes on Neal during his time with the Preds, ingesting any and all knowledge a player like Neal has to give.
"His shot is world-class, one of the best," Forsberg said of Neal. "You try to learn a little bit from every player you play with. During my first full year, I got to play with him and see him every day. That heavy, quick shot he's got is something everybody can learn from.
"He might not be the guy that really talks too much - he's more about playing the right way - but whenever he has to say something, he will. You know he's always there for you."
With only 13 games remaining in the regular season, Neal's teammates will continue to rely on him to be there with a timely goal, just as he's delivered in the past two outings. That's just fine with Neal, who's starting to feel "it" as the regular season winds down.
Chances are he has a few more pucks to deposit into the twine. It's not like he hasn't done it before.
"You want your confidence at an all-time high going into playoffs, knowing you've done everything possible to have your best game," Neal said. "We're still trying to get points and move up the standings as of right now, and we have a few games left, but we'll continue to get better every day and look forward to the best time of the year."