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.

Schenn’s hat trick powers Flyers to eighth straight win

PHILADELPHIA, PA - NOVEMBER 29:  Claude Giroux #28 of the Philadelphia Flyers is congratulated by teammates Jakub Voracek #93 and Brayden Schenn #10 after Giroux scored in the first period against the Boston Bruins on November 29, 2016 at Wells Fargo Center in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania.  (Photo by Elsa/Getty Images)
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The Dallas Stars were less than four minutes away from not only winning consecutive games for just the second time this season, but also snapping the Philadelphia Flyers’ winning streak on Saturday afternoon.

Then they started taking penalties, allowing Brayden Schenn and the Flyers’ power play to take over.

Schenn scored three power play goals, including two in the final four minutes to tie the game and then ultimately win it, to help lead the Flyers to a 4-2 win and extend their current winning streak to eight games.

Schenn had an eventful day on Saturday. Along with the hat trick, he also ended up in a fight with Stephen Johns in the first period.

The Flyers are now 17-10-3 on the season and have rapidly climbed the Eastern Conference standings over the past two weeks during this winning streak.

The Stars penalty kill has been a huge problem this season and it surfaced again on Saturday afternoon as they were unable to stay out of the penalty box late in the game. Jamie Oleksiak‘s cross-checking penalty on Jakub Voracek resulted in Schenn’s goal to tie the game. Less than a minute after that goal Tyler Seguin was sent off for high-sticking leading to Schenn’s third goal of the game just 40 seconds into the man advantage.

After Saturday the Stars’ penalty kill is now down to just 76 percent on the season and is near the bottom of the NHL.

That is just one of the many reasons the Stars are off to a disappointing 11-12-6 start through their first 29 games. Even worse, it was another missed opportunity to build on a win after a big 5-2 win in Nashville on Thursday.

The Stars have managed to win consecutive games just one time this season and have yet to win more than two games in a row.

They are now 1-7-3 in games following a win this season.

 

Goalie Nods: Penguins go back to Matt Murray against Lightning

NEW YORK, NY - NOVEMBER 30: Matt Murray #30 of the Pittsburgh Penguins tends goal against the New York Islanders at the Barclays Center on November 30, 2016 in the Brooklyn borough of New York City. The Islanders defeated the Penguins 5-3.  (Photo by Bruce Bennett/Getty Images)
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After sitting for three consecutive games earlier in the week, Matt Murray was back in the lineup on Thursday night for the Pittsburgh Penguins against the Florida Panthers. After stopping 28 of the 29 shots he faced in a 5-1 win (and nearly scoring an empty net goal), he gets the call again on Saturday night when the Penguins face the Tampa Bay Lightning in a rematch of the 2016 Eastern Conference Finals.

At this point the Penguins’ goalie rotation seems to simply be “keep playing until you lose or get pulled.”

Marc-Andre Fleury, after winning back-to-back starts against Dallas and Detroit, was lifted midway through the second period against Ottawa on Monday night paving the way for Murray to return to the crease.

Since taking over for Fleury midway through Monday’s game Murray has stopped 45 of the 47 shots he has faced and has a .934 save percentage on the season. Including playoffs, Murray has a .928 save percentage in 45 appearances at the NHL level since making his debut during the 2015-16 season. That is one of the best marks in the NHL during that stretch.

The Lightning, who have lost seven of their past nine games, are going with Andrei Vasilevskiy after Ben Bishop was pulled for giving up four goals on 20 shots in a 5-1 loss to Vancouver on Thursday.

With a .929 save percentage in 10 starts this season Vasilevskiy has been the Lightning’s best goalie so far. He replaced Bishop on Thursday night after he surrendered four goals on only 20 shots in a 5-1 loss to the Vancouver Canucks.

Elsewhere…

Steve Mason and Kari Lehtonen went for the Flyers and Stars respectively in their afternoon game, while Peter Budaj went against Mike Condon in the Kings-Senators game.

— With Ryan Miller sidelined due to a suspected lower body injury, Jacob Markstrom gets the call for Vancouver against his former team, the Florida Panthers. On the other end of the ice Roberto Luongo was also getting the start against his former team for the Panthers.

— The Islanders are trying to dig themselves out of an early deficit in the standings with a point in six straight games (5-0-1). They look to continue that strong play on Saturday against a Columbus team that has been the biggest surprise in the NHL this season. The Islanders go with Jaroslav Halak. The Blue Jackets, who have won five straight including a 4-1 win over the Detroit Red Wings on Friday, have not yet announced their starter. Sergei Bobrovsky will start again after getting the win on Friday.

Carey Price will be back in net for the Canadiens after he avoided discipline for punching Kyle Palmieri the other night with his blocker. He will go against Calvin Pickard in the Colorado net.

Frederik Andersen vs. Tuukka Rask is the goalie matchup in Boston when the Bruins host the Maple Leafs.

Mike Smith looks to snap a personal five-game winless streak when he gets the nod for the Arizona Coyotes against Pekka Rinne and the Nashville Predators.

— The Flames are going with Chad Johnson in net again when they host the Winnipeg Jets, and for good reason. Johnson has taken the No. 1 job in Calgary and now has a 10-2-0 record to go with a .947 save percentage in 12 starts since Nov. 15. No official word from the Jets on their starting goalie.

— The Sharks and Hurricanes have yet to announce their starters for the late game.

Coyotes place Max Domi on IR, out ‘week to week’

GLENDALE, AZ - FEBRUARY 18:  Max Domi #16 of the Arizona Coyotes during the NHL game against the Dallas Stars at Gila River Arena on February 18, 2016 in Glendale, Arizona. The Coyotes defeated the Stars 6-3.  (Photo by Christian Petersen/Getty Images)
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A tough season for the Arizona Coyotes managed to get even tougher on Saturday when the team announced it has placed forward Max Domi on injured reserve with an upper body injury.

He is expected to be sidelined on a week-to-week basis. The earliest Domi is expected to return is next Saturday’s game against Minnesota.

Domi, 21, is one of the team’s best young players and has been an immediate success since arriving in the NHL a year ago. After finishing second on the team in scoring with 52 points as a rookie, a performance that earned him a sixth place finish in the Calder Trophy voting, he is once again second on the team this season with 16 points through the team’s first 26 games.

Domi played 10 minutes in the Coyotes’ most recent game against the Calgary Flames before exiting the game late in the second period following a fight with Garnet Hathaway.

This is the fight.

Domi is a skilled forward, but he is no stranger to dropping the gloves, with that fight already being his seventh in the NHL since the start of the 2015-16 season. Even if it is something he occasionally does it still has to be tough to lose perhaps your best player to an injury in a fight.

The Coyotes are in Nashville on Saturday night to play the Predators. They enter the day with an 8-13-5 record that has them tied for the worst record in the NHL with the Colorado Avalanche.

With Ryan Miller injured, Canucks recall Thatcher Demko

MONTREAL, QC - NOVEMBER 02:  Ryan Miller #30 of the Vancouver Canucks looks on from his crease during the NHL game against the Montreal Canadiens at the Bell Centre on November 2, 2016 in Montreal, Quebec, Canada.  The Montreal Canadiens defeated the Vancouver Canucks 3-0.  (Photo by Minas Panagiotakis/Getty Images)
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Vancouver Canucks goalie Ryan Miller had to exit the team’s 5-1 win over the Tampa Bay Lightning on Thursday night with a suspected lower body injury after stopping 38 of the 39 shots he faced.

The team did not seem overly concerned about it at the time, but Miller did not participate in the team’s morning skate on Saturday before their game against the Florida Panthers.

The team also announced that goalie Thatcher Demko has been recalled from the Utica Comets of the American Hockey League.

Demko, the team’s second-round draft pick (No. 36 overall) in 2014 is in his first year of pro hockey after a successful collegiate career at Boston College. In 14 games with Utica this season he has .909 save percentage. While the overall numbers are not anything overly impressive, he has been playing significantly better in recent weeks after a tough stretch to start his pro career.

Miller has a .916 save percentage in 15 games for the Canucks this season. If he can not go on Saturday night look for Jacob Markstrom to get the call with Demko serving as his backup.

There is no word at this point on how long the Canucks expect Miller to be sidelined.