A View From the Press Box
James Neal – the Real Deal?
The Calgary Flames defeated the Detroit Red Wings 6 to 4 in home game 25 and overall season game 49 on Friday night. With the win the Flames continue to remain on top of the Western Conference with 67 points. Overall in the NHL the Calgary Flames are the 2nd best team trailing only Tampa Bay.
The Flames had a good start to this game. In the first 10 minutes they outshot the Red Wings 7 to 3. However they got themselves into penalty trouble and found themselves shorthanded 5 to 3 late in the period. It took only 21 seconds before Anthony Mantha scored the game’s first goal to give the Red Wings the lead at 19:01. Yes, another game where the Flames are playing from behind!
Head Coach Bill Peters said after the win “Guys stepping up at key times. I give our group credit, when the game’s on the line they play. They show up and they dig in and they do it right.”
It’s been a common theme all season for the Calgary Flames having to play catch up hockey. The Flames did not take the lead in the game until 16:06 of the third period on Sam Bennett’s power play goal. Bennett was the first star of the game. He scored twice including the game winner and had an assist as well. It was Bennett’s first three point night of the season. After the game Sam Bennett said “Most of the time it deflates you when that keeps happening, but our team, we never sagged. We never got down on each other or frustrated. We just keep sticking with it. That’s the mentality that you need to have.”
By far Dylan Larkin was the best player on the ice for the Red Wings. He scored his 19th and 20th goals of the season and was selected second star. Besides Bennett the Flames received secondary scoring help and a strong game from Derek Ryan, who played a pivotal role of the Flames second power play and chipped in with 2 assists to earn the third star of the game.
Also additional secondary scoring came from James Neal. It was truly good to see and the Flames fan’s showed a warm appreciation to a veteran player who has struggled most of this season. James Neal signed a 5 year $28,750,000 contract with an annual salary of $5,750,000 per season. He was expected to be a top 6 forward and add some extra scoring to the Flames line – up. Unfortunately, it hasn’t worked out that way so far. Entering tonight’s game, Neal played 46 of the first 48 games had 4 goals, 6 assist for 10 points, with a -11 rating and 20 minutes in penalties. Prior to the game against the Red Wings Neal, age 31 who is 6’3” 212 lbs had not played up to his potential for whatever reasons and no one wants to be kicked while being down! Neal has lacked skating speed, wavering confidence mixed as well as with some bad scoring luck. He truly has not had a good year.
However, last night he seemed to take his game to another level. He had 1 goal and 1 assist, played 13.15 minutes on 18 shifts averaging 44 seconds per shift. He played on the second power play unit and got moved up to play with Mikael Backlund and Michael Frolik on the Flames game second line. Neal responded well. He played a 200 foot game, doing the little things right, working hard every shift, made some plays off the rush and definitely seemed to be around the puck more in this game. Neal assisted on Sam Bennett’s first goal of the game, Neal was in front of the net and T.J. Brodie’s pass went off Neal’s skate to Bennett and Sam scored on the power play. It may have been a good omen in the game and for Neal’s future play! Later Neal scored his fifth goal of the season on the power play on a nice goal scorer’s deflection from a Rasmus Andersson shot.
James Neal on his play “I felt like my line spent a lot of time in the offensive zone…That’s the sign of a winning team too. You have different nights and contribute in different ways.”
This season the Flames have the luxury of extra skill and depth on the roster that they have not had in prior years. This writer believes that James Neal will play an important role down the stretch drive and in the playoffs. Coach Peters has not given up on Neal utilizing him on the 2nd power play unit and rotating him between the 2nd and 3rd lines. With his size and experience, Neal should elevate his game in the last 20 odd games of the regular season and perform well in the playoffs. It will be interesting to see how things unfold in the games ahead for this proud veteran who still needs a few good bounces; similar to last night. Stay tuned!
Note: The Flames next home game is scheduled for Tuesday, January 22nd against the Carolina Hurricanes. Yes it’s Head Coach Bill Peter’s previous team. Should be a good one!