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.

Lightning will retire Vincent Lecavalier’s number on February 10

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The Tampa Bay Lightning announced on Monday morning that they will be retiring Vincent Lecavalier’s No. 4 this season, making sure that no other player will ever wear it for the franchise.

His jersey will be lifted to the rafters on Feb. 10 when the Lightning host the Los Angeles Kings. The Kings were one of three teams Lecavalier played for in his career, along with the Philadelphia Flyers.

“It is a great honor to have my number retired and I’d like to thank the Lightning organization and Jeff Vinik for recognizing me with this achievement,” Lecavalier said in a team statement. “The Tampa Bay community and our fans have treated me and my family so amazingly that this honor is extra special to share it with everyone. My family and I are very excited for February 10 when we can share so many memories.”

Lecavalier was the No. 1 overall pick by the Lightning in 1998 and spent 14 of his 17 seasons in the NHL with the team.

He is currently the franchise’s all-time leader in games played and goals and the second-leading point producer. He will be the second player to have his number retired by the team, joining Martin St. Louis.

Lecavalier and St. Louis helped lead the Lightning to a Stanley Cup during the 2003-04 season. His best individual season was probably the 2006-07 season when he finished with a league-leading 52 goals.

The Rocket’s slowest assist: Maurice Richard gets point 72 years later

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MONTREAL (AP) Montreal Canadiens great Maurice “Rocket” Richard is getting an assist added to his career totals.

Six years of poring over scoresheets and summaries of games between 1917 and 1987 by an NHL statistics team has found and fixed more than 6,000 bits of information that were overlooked or miscounted in the league’s early eras.

Among the finds was an assist on Toe Blake’s goal at 10:15 of the second period of the Canadiens’ 6-5 loss to the Boston Bruins on Nov. 4, 1945, during a time when the Punch Line of Richard, Blake and Elmer Lach was dominant.

The scoresheet that night, scratched out in handwriting, correctly had Richard with the lone assist. But when it was transcribed into the league’s official ledger, it was mistakenly given to Emile Bouchard.

The restored assist gives Richard 422 in an 18-year career that ended in 1960, and his points total climbs to 966. For the 1945-46 season, one year after he made history as the first to score 50 goals in a season, he now has 27 goals and 22 assists. The new totals are already entered in Richard’s stats on NHL.com.

It’s a good thing it wasn’t a goal, because Richard’s then-record career total of 544 has become an iconic number. A big deal is often made when an NHL star scores his 544th, such as when Washington Capitals star Alex Ovechkin did it at Montreal on Jan. 10.

In the early 1960s, Richard owned a bar called the 544/9 Tavern, a reference to his goals total and retired jersey number.

Since 1999, the league awards the Richard Trophy to the season’s leading goal-scorer.

Finding little gems of information like the Richard assist was one product of a massive undertaking to update and modernize the league database, which is to be re-launched this week.

NHL head statistician Benny Ercolani said fact-checking alone, such as adding one more game played to Ron Stackhouse’s total, took 2 1/2 years.

“Six thousand little corrections isn’t that high when you consider how many games were entered,” he said. “It sounds like a big number, but it’s from 1917-18 to 1986-87.”

Sometimes power-play or short-handed goals weren’t registered as such. Rules changes added to the muddle. In the league’s earliest days, minor penalties lasted 3 minutes instead of 2. There were years when up to four assists were awarded on a goal.

“In the old days, they didn’t keep descriptions of penalties – now that’s in there,” Ercolani said.

He said the new website statistics will allow users to find full information from the league’s entire 100-year history, and access them in new ways.

“This is only the tip of the iceberg,” he said. “There’s a lot of other stuff coming.

“Now that we’ve got the data, we can do a lot with it.”

Kraft Hockeyville: Blues beat Penguins in tune-up for season-opener

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Much like Sunday night, the St. Louis Blues will visit the Pittsburgh Penguins for a game in Pennsylvania on Oct. 4. With that in mind, the more heated moments from tonight’s Kraft Hockeyville preseason match might be fresh on the minds of both teams when the games start to count.

In this case, the Blues carried the play from a variety of perspectives, including the final score of 4-1.

The Penguins got the first goal when Jake Guentzel finished a nice one-timer sequence set by Sidney Crosby and Conor Sheary, yet St. Louis was able to leverage its possession advantages to goals that beat Matt Murray up high.

The first one came from a familiar face in Vladimir Tarasenko, who aims for a Maurice Richard Trophy in 2017-18.

The game-winner was from 19-year-old Jordan Kyrou:

Paul Stastny then iced the game with a 3-1 empty-netter with a little less than 30 seconds remaining. Dmitrij Jaskin then made it 4-1 with a nice, patient score with Murray sprawling on the ice.

Carter Hutton deserves credit for a sharp win, but the final score didn’t do Murray’s alert evening justice, as the Blues fired 45 shots on him. This was probably the save of the contest:

While the Blues and Penguins wanted to be alert in this one, the stuff they might remember came down to rougher moments. Things started to escalate when Crosby mixed it up with Alex Pietrangelo.

As a preseason contest, some of this will likely be forgotten by veteran Penguins and Blues, but the people of Cranberry, Pa. and Belle Vernon, Pa. won’t soon forget the Kraft Hockeyville experience.

WATCH LIVE: Kraft Hockeyville featuring Penguins vs. Blues

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The Pittsburgh Penguins are set to host the St. Louis Blues to celebrate the latest edition of Kraft Hockeyville USA, with the game beginning at 8 p.m. ET on NBCSN.

You can watch it online and via the NBC Sports App.

CLICK HERE TO WATCH LIVE

Find out more about Kraft Hockeyville winner Belle Vernon, Pa. in the video above this post’s headline (and also in this post). The game itself is taking place at UPMC Lemieux Sports complex in Cranberry, Pa.

NHL.com captures some of the spectacle, as about 2,000 fans showed up and players signed autographs during what sounded like a very fun event.

Speaking of very fun, all signs point to Sidney Crosby and Evgeni Malkin being among those players suiting up for the game itself.