UNIONDALE, N.Y. -- When the Pittsburgh Penguins traded Alex Goligoski to the Dallas Stars for Matt Niskanen and James Neal in February, there was a thought that the now three-time 20-goal scorer would eventually find himself playing alongside Sidney Crosby.
Instead, Neal was playing with Alexei Kovalev and Mark Letestu, for the most part, as the Penguins were without Crosby and Evgeni Malkin for the second half of last season.
While Neal struggled after coming to Pittsburgh, scoring just twice in 27 regular season and playoff games, through 11 games this season everything has been clicking. As the Penguins still wait for Crosby's return, and with Malkin having missed seven games early on, Neal has carried the offensive load for the 7-2-2 Penguins. Neal is second in the NHL with eight goals.
So what's changed for Neal from last season to now?
"It's more of a comfort feeling just coming in," said Neal after Tuesday's morning skate, before the Penguins' 3-0 win over the New York Islanders. "Feeling comfortable in Pittsburgh and just knowing everybody and knowing what to expect. Last year, you come in off a trade and it was just tough to adjust."
Neal was looked upon to aid the offense as the Penguins dealt with a rash of injuries in the second half of last season. Head Coach Dan Bylsma said that this year -- despite his early success -- the pressure isn't there for Neal to be that No. 1 guy every night.
"I think he felt that having the summer and having a great summer of working out, he came back confident," said Bylsma. "A lot of those other things go away in terms of being a new guy in a new city with new coaches and new teammates. He had familiarity with the people. I think starting the season, I don't think he thought, 'Oh, I have to score for this team to be successful.' He's coming in and you have Malkin, Crosby, Staal and [Kris] Letang, and he's a guy who's now coming in to be on the Pittsburgh Penguins, not a guy who's being counted on to score goals."
We spoke with Neal about his hot start, the spotlight on dangerous hitting in the NHL, training with Gary Roberts and more. Enjoy.
Q. Did that stretch after coming over last year motivate you in the off-season to get off to a better start?
NEAL: Yeah, it did. I was disappointed coming over and not being able to produce. I had a great off-season and just wanted to come in and just show everyone what I could do and play the way that I know that I could.
When you have a hot streak like this do you stick with a certain routine? Are you a superstitious guy?
Not really. I'm not too superstitious. I do my normal warmups and my normal routine before games, but nothing in particular. But you just play with that confidence. You want the puck and you want to shoot to score every time, so that's mainly the big thing.
You're a guy who plays a physical game. Have you had to make any adjustments to your approach with the new rules in place?
No, but I think everybody's more aware of who's around them and who they're running into and who they're being physical on. You can see it when guys are going back for pucks ... the bigger guys, the heavier hitters are laying up on guys. Everybody's taking it in and adjusted their game a little bit.
What do the guys think of the Brendan Shanahan videos?
Everyone likes them. It takes away that gray area that shows you exactly what kind of hits are being suspended and for what reasons.
Sidney Crosby recently said he wants that contact in practice. Is there any hesitation to hit him given how long he's been out?
I don't know if there's hesitation to hit him ... it's so hard to hit the guy.
He's so fast and moves so well around. I don't know how anyone can catch him to even get a piece of him. You try to. We want to get him ready as much as possible so he can come back and be as comfortable as possible to play, but he looks great out there and I'm sure the one guy doesn't want to be the guy to hammer Sid, but like I said, it's just so hard to hit the guy. He's so agile and moves so well.
You've been training with Gary Roberts for several years now. What's the Gary Roberts Training Experience like?
It's great. He cares a lot about the guys he trains. He's a guy that's been around for a long time and played a lot of years in the NHL, so for him to know what you go through on a daily basis throughout the year it definitely helps you to adjust your training in the summer.
He does everything to better you on the ice and come to training camp and you're ready to go. It is hard. It's grueling everyday, but if you want to play in the league for a lot of years and be in top shape then those are the things you got to do.
What's the craziest thing on his meal plan?
I don't know about craziest thing, but I do the meal plans that he does from Nature's Emporium back home and they do a great job of preparing all of our meals for us; from all the organic stuff to everything we eat. I've come to see how it really helps you with eating that way to gaining muscle and getting stronger. It's just part of the workout.
You joined Twitter this summer. You think you'll stay with it?
Yeah, for sure. I think everyone's starting to see how big it is and see how it's coming along. You kind of keep the Tweets to a minimum, but it's definitely fun to joke around with guys on it.
Do you follow Geno [Evgeni Malkin]?
[Laughs] I definitely follow Geno.
Geno's followers go up everyday by a ton. He's funny on there. He's got a good sense of humor.
You're going to be a restricted free agent this summer. Is there an expectation that your agent will speak with Ray [Shero] during the season or is that something you prefer to take care of once the year's over?
I've been through it before. I'm sure they'll talk after the season. I leave that up to my agent and he'll take care of that and I'm sure he's dealt with Ray before.
Photo credit: Getty Images