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Puck Daddy

Fueled by Malkin, James Neal makes early impact for Penguins

Sean Leahy
Puck Daddy

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AP

NEW YORK, N.Y. -- When he was traded to the Pittsburgh Penguins in 2011, James Neal's early struggles came down to comfort level. New city; new team; new linemates; new system. He scored twice in 27 regular season and playoff games after the trade. But then he settled in at the start of last season playing alongside eventual Hart and Art Ross Trophy winner Evgeni Malkin.

The chemistry Neal formed with his new linemate helped earn him a 6-year, $30 million extension -- a bargain compared to recent long-term deals signed -- while Malkin dominated the league with 50 goals and 109 points and ended the year with a trip to Las Vegas, adding a few extra pieces of carry-on luggage in the process.

Picking up where they left off in April, Neal and Malkin's chemistry through two games has been a traveling road show: a Saturday afternoon win in Philadelphia, followed by a dominant 6-3 victory over the New York Rangers, spoiling their home opener at Madison Square Garden. The win was the Penguins' fifth in a row over the Rangers dating back to last season.

The Penguins' success at MSG doesn't surprise Neal.

“We know how we play in here," said Neal after Sunday's victory. "We know if we come out and play our systems right and do a job, we’ve got a good chance of winning every night. We’ve done that the last two games.”

Each of Neal's three goals have been assisted by Malkin, including his pair against the Rangers. Three goals, but more importantly for the Penguins, two wins over divisional opponents.

Malkin and Penguins captain Sidney Crosby have gone goalless so far. The premature overreaction to Pittsburgh's two-headed monster not putting a puck in the back of the net yet has been brought to a halt thanks to the two victories, but once again Neal is leading the way by producing early in a season. In October 2011, he scored 9 times through Pittsburgh's opening 12 games, four of which came with a helping stick from Malkin. Having a third head to the offensive monster will continue to serve the Penguins well.

“It’s a huge bonus," said Crosby. "With most of the guys coming back it helps. To have those two guys going off the start like they are, that’s a big boost for us.”

Having played 37 games with Metallurg Magnitogorsk in the KHL, Malkin's basically in midseason form already with four points through two games. Despite a short training camp and a "game" in the form of a team scrimmage, there was no rediscovery process for Malkin and Neal.

“Geno’s coming in with a good mindset and excited to get back to playing Penguins hockey," said Neal. "He’s got some game legs. He’s playing right where he left off last year. That’s big for me. I just try and get in the open ice and he finds me.”

“He’s a good player," said Malkin. "I'm very comfortable. We start quick. [It's] just a couple of games and he start to score every game."

When the chemistry is there between linemates, there's an innate sense of knowing where the other is at all times. Neal's second goal against the Rangers was a perfect example. Malkin skates to a loose puck in the corner of the offensive zone, takes quick look up, then slides a pass to Neal in the slot who beats Martin Biron five hole to increase the Penguins' lead to 5-1.

“It’s a sense of confidence," said Crosby. "It’s a good feeling that no matter how the game’s going, you trust that eventually when you do get that chance or when things do open up, you’re going to capitalize. It’s just confidence in executing and no matter what the situation, you always feel like you’re going to generate that chance.”

Neal won't hit the 72-goal pace he's currently on, and likely won't match the 40 he put up a season ago; but in Malkin he's found the center who can create situations for his quick shot, one that's aided him into developing into one of the league's best goal scorers.

“That was my mindset coming in, and lucky enough things are working out," said Neal.

“As long as the team’s winning, everything’s good.”

Follow Sean Leahy on Twitter at @Sean_Leahy

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