The end of February of 2011 marked a time period where Penguins hockey would never be the same, although at the time we wouldn't have known the difference. If you’re having trouble remembering what happened around this time last year, let me kindly refresh your memory. We said farewell to Alex Goligoski and saw him off to Dallas and in return we welcomed James Neal and Matt Niskanen to a depleted, injury plagued Penguin lineup. While Niskanen proved he could play on both sides of the puck under Dan Bylsma with 9 goals and 22 assists before heading to the Stars, I’m not sure that the organization realized what exactly we were going to get with our return on investment.
Everybody knew the kind of season James Neal was having in Dallas and only expected better when he arrived in Pittsburgh. Unfortunately, after several games in the black and gold (and sometimes blue and lighter blue) Neal had only managed one goal and only six points. He rounded the year off with 22 goals and a total of 45 points - ten points less than his previous year with the Stars. Sure, it was tough for him coming onto a team where he had little chance to conform to the Bylsma system and really get settled in place and feel comfortable. Of course, you can always say that he’s a professional hockey player – that’s what he’s paid to do is adjust. Or, you could have patience and wait for the 2011-2012 season, where we would see a side of James Neal that we wouldn’t have expected to see at the end of last season. Now we can say that Ray Shero really made the real deal for this organization back in February.
In the last six games of the current winning streak, Neal has tallied 5 goals, 4 assists, has a +10 rating and has averaged 21:29 of ice time. All this, and we thought we lost him for weeks due to a foot injury that turned out to be nothing. He has really stepped up his game when they needed him the most this season amid a locker room full of concussed (and other injured) Penguins.
To me, the Neal-Niskanen, Goligoski trade has been one of the most beneficial trades for Pittsburgh in recent memory. He is proving himself as an asset to the Penguins organization, contributes almost every game, is becoming a huge fan favorite, and has received a lot of support for being “snubbed” in this year’s NHL All-star game (while Ovechkin, who couldn’t score on a drunk hooker, gets to go). Personally, I feel that Neal has a bright future with the Penguins and has a lot to bring with the table. Here’s to hoping that ol’Ginger-Beard will stick around the Burgh for a while.
As always, LET’S GO PENS!
courtesy of our very own Nicole Tracey