Pittsburgh Penguins v Tampa Bay Lightning - Game Four

James Neal hopes to improve next season with Penguins

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At the trade deadline last March, the Penguins thought they finally found a winger who could make beautiful music with Sidney Crosby. Of course, things didn’t work out exactly as they had hoped. Crosby was sidelined with a concussion at the beginning of January and the newly acquired Neal never had an opportunity to show what he could do with the superstar center by his side.

The Whitby, Ontario native only managed a single goal in 20 games with the Penguins down the stretch of the regular season. More importantly for Pittsburgh, he only netted a single goal (and two points) in the Penguins 7-game defeat to Tampa Bay in the first round of the playoffs last year.

It wasn’t only the absence of a true #1 center that held Neal back last season. Like many players before him, he learned first-hand that a mid-season trade can turn their world upside down. Neal spoke of the chaos that surrounds a player when they’re traded to another team in the middle of the season:

“You get a call one day and then you’re on a plane and you’re in Pittsburgh and your whole life changes in a matter of minutes. It’s crazy, but at the same time, it’s exciting. It’s a great chance to play on an amazing team with amazing players. It’s definitely for the better and I couldn’t be happier that it happened.”

The Penguins were clearly excited when they had the opportunity to acquire him (and Matt Niskanen) from the Dallas Stars for defenseman Alex Goligoski. Even though the stats weren’t where the wanted them to be last season, the organization is still looking at Neal to be one of their main producers on wing next season.

For his part, Neal is doing everything possible this offseason to make sure he thrives once the season starts next season. He’s been training with well-known fitness nut and former NHLer Gary Roberts as he works to get into peak physical shape for next season. Neal talked about his offseason conditioning with Roberts:

“My training is focused on what I need to improve in on the ice. Everyone wants to get faster. A big part of playing my game is skating and speed. You always try to strengthen your legs and get faster on the ice. At the same time, when you play a physical game and you’re in the corners and battling in front, you’ve got to have the strength to do that.”

The term you may be looking for right now is “contract year.” Obviously, Neal wants to improve upon his numbers and help the Penguins get back to the elite level they have seen over the last few years. But from a personal standpoint, this wouldn’t be a bad time to have a breakout season. The soon-to-be 24-year-old is a restricted free agent at the end of the 2011-12 season and he could use a good season if he hopes to cash in on the opportunity.

In just three full season, Neal has already shown that he consistently score goals at the NHL level. He’s averaged 24 goals and 46 points over the course of his short career—numbers the Penguins hope increase by playing next to the likes of Sidney Crosby and/or Evgeni Malkin for a full season next year.  No wonder Dan Bylsma thinks the Penguins will be better next season.

Last time around, the Dallas Stars gave him a 2-year deal worth $5.75 million as they expected him to continue to improve his game. Whether it was due to the mid-season trade, mounting expectations, or the weight of a new contract, Neal saw his game plateau last season. But if Neal can rediscover the game that has already made him a three-time 20-goal scorer, he has the potential to breakout for the Penguins next season.

And get a sizeable raise at the same time.

Things might be turning around for Lundqvist (not so much for the Kings)

LOS ANGELES, CA - JUNE 13:  Marian Gaborik #12 of the Los Angeles Kings shakes hands with Henrik Lundqvist #30 of the New York Rangers after the Kings 3-2 double-overtime victory during Game Five of the 2014 Stanley Cup Final at Staples Center on June 13, 2014 in Los Angeles, California.  (Photo by Bruce Bennett/Getty Images)
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As you likely know, the 2017 NHL All-Star Game is coming to Los Angeles this weekend. If the Kings don’t get it together, that might be the biggest hockey event for some time, as they’re currently on the outside looking in at the playoffs.

Monday presented what felt like a story of one cold streak continuing to fade away while the other only seems to get icier.

The positive side: Henrik Lundqvist might just be working through that slump.

The New York Rangers beat the Los Angeles Kings 3-2 on Monday, and it wasn’t a walk in the park for Lundqvist. He made 36 out of 38 stops, giving him a personal three-game winning streak in which he’s allowed just four total goals.

Some of those stops were pretty impressive, too:

(He also shut down a Jeff Carter breakaway, which is obviously no easy task.)

While Lundqvist is getting it together, the Kings might just be a little worried after dropping their fourth straight loss.

They’re at 48 points in 47 games, leaving them three points behind the West’s two wild card teams and two behind the Canucks.

The Kings have experience fighting through challenges like these, but they’ve also fallen short of getting into the West’s top eight, and their schedule is awfully road-heavy:

Tuesday: at Devils
Thursday: at Hurricanes
Tuesday, Jan. 31: at Coyotes
Wednesday, Feb. 1: vs. Avalanche
Saturday, Feb. 4: at Flyers
Sunday, Feb. 5: at Capitals
Tuesday, Feb. 7: at Lightning
Thursday, Feb. 9: at Panthers

Some of those opponents are struggling and the All-Star break might allow for a breather, but that could still be a problematic stretch, especially if the Kings are in a fragile state.

Then again, if they look at Lundqvist’s upward trend, they can note that fortunes can change pretty quickly in 2016-17.

Nick Jonas, Carly Rae Jepsen add legit star power to 2017 NHL All-Star Game

WASHINGTON, DC - OCTOBER 03:  Carly Rae Jepsen performs at the the Human Rights Campaign National Dinner at Walter E. Washington Convention Center on October 3, 2015 in Washington, DC.  (Photo by Leigh Vogel/Getty Images)
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If you had to describe the non-hockey celebrities who will be on hand for the weekend’s festivities for the 2017 NHL All-Star Game, you’d probably throw around terms like “young” and “surprisingly famous.”

At least, that’s especially true with the artists who’ve been announced most recently: the league notes that Nick Jonas, Fifth Harmony and Carly Rae Jepsen will be in the mix.

Apparently John Legend Robin Thicke and John Ondrasik (Five fo Fighting) will be involved in the events, which also include The NHL 100 (which is hosted by Jon Hamm). Goodness, most of us have heard of like, all of them.

The league ran down how things will shake up:

Carly Rae Jepsen will open the 2017 Honda NHL® All-Star Game pregame festivities at STAPLES Center on Sunday, Jan. 29 with a performance of the Canadian national anthem followed by Fifth Harmony’s rendition of the U.S. national anthem. Grammy nominated recording artist, Nick Jonas, will command the ice during the second intermission with a live performance. The NHL will honor the 100 Greatest NHL Players in a special pregame ceremony. The 2017 Honda NHL® All-Star Game and the performances will be broadcast live on Sunday, Jan. 29 at 12:30 p.m. PT / 3:30 p.m. ET on NBC in the U.S. and CBC, Sports and TVA Sports in Canada.

As previously announced, Hamm will host THE NHL100™ presented by GEICO, a star-studded event in which the entire collection of the 100 Greatest NHL Players will be unveiled. Set for Friday, Jan. 27 at 6:30 p.m. PT and billed as the largest gathering ever of hockey legends, THE NHL100 presented by GEICO at Microsoft Theater also will feature appearances from 2017 NHL® All-Star players and famous hockey fans. Legend and Ondrasik will perform and Thicke will lead a special In Memoriam that pays tribute to the late members of the 100 Greatest NHL Players. Tickets to THE NHL100™ presented by GEICO are available at AXS.com.

Being that those musicians generally fall under the “pop” category, some in the purest sense that it’s used right now, there were some making fun of that selection. This is the Internet, after all, where everything receives mockery. Is there a mockery-proof musician?

(Radiohead certainly draws Kid Rock ire, for one.)

These are some pretty good gets by the NHL for such an event, maybe aided by it taking place in Los Angeles.

The burning question, really, is if this weekend will break the Twitter follower tie between Jepsen and Jonas:

Maybe they’ll go to a shootout.

Video: Giordano goes after Komarov following big hit on Gaudreau

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Johnny Gaudreau returned very soon after all of this, so at the moment, it seems like the Calgary Flames dodged a big bullet on Monday night.

That bullet came in the form of a big hit by Toronto Maple Leafs winger Leo Komarov, a check that did not prompt a penalty, but is inspiring plenty of debate on social media. The Athletic’s James Mirtle puts it well, at least for those of us on the fence: “as with a lot of Komarov hits, it’s in a grey area.”

Again, the best news is that Gaudreau was able to return (though sometimes issues like these demand a “To be continued”), shocking quite a few.

There’s some debate about the legality of the hit, but most seem perplexed that Mark Giordano‘s response didn’t prompt fighting majors. Instead, they were merely whistled for roughing.

You can watch the full sequence in the video above. Here’s a GIF of the fight roughing specifically:

At the moment, the Leafs hold a commanding 3-0 lead. Maybe the Flames will use that sequence to start a comeback?

Leafs fall down on the job – in a good way – on Kadri’s 100th goal (Video)

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You know how athletes – hockey players in particular – have a tendency to shrug off their own accomplishments and spread the praise to their teammates? Nazem Kadri would be justified in doing that “Aww shucks” routine regarding his 100th goal.

Just bask in the effort exhibited by his teammates in setting up what was a very nice finish by Kadri for that milestone marker, which you can see in the video above.

Leafs Nation’s Jeff Veillette did a nice job describing the efforts of Auston Matthews and William Nylander

Pretty much.

Now get your click’s worth with one other entertaining clip from the game, via Mitch Marner: