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.

Here’s your Stanley Cup playoffs schedule for tonight

Stanley Cup
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The Stanley Cup playoffs continue with two games on Friday night. You can catch tonight’s games via the NBC Sports Group’s television and digital platforms.

St. Louis at Dallas (8:00 p.m. ET)

The TV broadcast of Game 1 will be on NBCSN. To stream the game using the NBC Sports Live Extra app, click here.

Nashville at San Jose (10:30 p.m. ET)

The TV broadcast of Game 1 will also be on NBCSN. To stream the game using the NBC Sports Live Extra app, click here.

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Blues best Blackhawks in epic Game 7

Report: NHL, NHLPA agree on expansion draft rules

NHL commissioner Gary Bettman answers a question during a news conference before the NHL All-Star hockey game skills competition, Saturday, Jan. 30, 2016, in Nashville, Tenn. (AP Photo/Mark Humphrey)
Associated Press
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The NHL and NHLPA have agreed on the framework for a potential expansion draft, according to TSN’s Gary Lawless.

Last month, we found out what each team will be able to protect if ever the NHL adds expansion franchises. Bill Daly made it clear that each existing team would only lose one player per expansion team coming into the league. More specifically, teams would be allowed to protect seven forwards, three defensemen, and a goalie or eight skaters (any position).

Although this agreement between the league and PA doesn’t guarantee expansion will happen, it does ensure that one major step is out of the way if ever the league decided to add a team or two.

The agreement between the two sides also includes an expansion scenario for players with no-trade or no-movement clauses in their contracts.

Here’s an excerpt from Lawless’ story:

The NHL has hundreds of steps to go through before expansion can potentially become a reality and getting an agreement with the NHLPA was viewed as near top of the list. The executive committee would not have recommended expansion to the NHL’s board of governors for the purpose of a vote without an agreement in place with the NHLPA, and in particular, a resolution on how existing no-trade and no-move clauses will be handled.

Las Vegas and Quebec City have been mentioned as two potential destinations for  expansion franchises in the near future. As Lawless mentions in his story, NHL general managers were told to expect a decision on expansion for 2017-18 by the NHL Entry Draft in June.

Related:

NHL insists ‘no final decisions’ have been made on expansion.

Daly: Teams can only lose one player per expansion team

‘Roster chaos’: Let’s ponder some possible expansion draft scenarios

PHT Morning Skate: Nick Foligno pulled off an awesome prank on Cam Atkinson

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PHT’s Morning Skate takes a look around the world of hockey to see what’s happening and what we’ll be talking about around the NHL world and beyond.

John Tavares and Steven Stamkos once played on the same youth team. That team went 49-0-1. (Newsday)

–Which team deserves to win the NHL Draft lottery? (Winnipeg Sun)

–Rick DiPietro wasn’t happy about something Mike Francesca said. (BarDown)

–Watch the highlights from last night’s game between the Capitals and Penguins. (Top)

Nick Foligno pretended to be a season ticket holder and pranked Cam Atkinson. Funny stuff.

–Prior to Game 1 between the Penguins and Capitals, T.J. Oshie‘s daughter was filmed kicking a Penguins poster. Maybe she should do it more often because her father scored a hat trick just a few hours later. (Instagram)

–Brett Hull says “goals don’t matter” when you play for Ken Hitchcock. (Sportsnet)

Oshie’s hat trick lets Caps just barely squeak by Penguins in OT

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What a start.

This series between the Pittsburgh Penguins and Washington Capitals might be headlined by Sidney Crosby and Alex Ovechkin, but as many have said in the lead-up to tonight’s opener, there is so much more to this second round matchup than that. Washington’s 4-3 overtime victory in Game 1 tonight could be offered up as Exhibit A.

This game had everything except big offensive showings from Crosby and Ovechkin. They had their moments, but in the end combined for just one assist.

What we got instead was a hat trick by T.J. Oshie that was completed with a game-winning goal that made it past the line by such a narrow margin that it warranted a video review:

This game also featured a sequence of three goals in 90 seconds and yet also some great saves by goaltenders Braden Holtby and Matt Murray. At the other end of the spectrum, there was a controversial hit by Tom Wilson that might lead to a suspension.

There was even some odd stuff. Like how Jay Beagle got a stick stuck in his equipment.

Twice:

If this game sets the tone for the rest of the series, then we should be in for a closely contested, highlight filled affair.

NOTES:

Nick Bonino had a goal and an assist for the Penguins. Evgeni Malkin and Ben Lovejoy accounted for the Penguins’ other markers.

— Capitals forward Andre Burakovsky scored the game’s opening goal. It was his first marker of the 2016 playoffs.

— Washington outshot Pittsburgh 15-9 in the first period, but Pittsburgh ended up with a 45-35 edge.

— This is the first time in the 2016 playoffs that Braden Holtby has allowed more than two goals. He surrendered just five goals in six games to Philadelphia.

— Matt Murray suffered his first career postseason loss after winning three straight contests against the New York Rangers.