James Neal

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James Neal driving force behind Knights’ remarkable start

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LAS VEGAS (AP) The Golden Knights haven’t wasted any time in making an impact on the NHL. Fans in large part can thank James Neal for that.

Neal has scored the game-winning goal in all three of the Knights’ victories, making them the first team in NHL history to begin their debut season with three straight wins. He’s added his own personal firsts, including scoring the first goal in franchise history last Friday in Dallas and the first power-play goal in franchise history in the team’s emotional home opener Tuesday. He has five goals total on the season.

“You’re going to have your highs, you’re going to have your lows,” he said. “But when you’re scoring, you’re feeling it. You’re in a zone and you gotta do everything you can to keep it going. Tons of emotions coming from our group. Everyone is new, everyone is trying to battle for each other. You can see it in the way we play, you can see it on the bench, you can see the emotion that we’re playing with.”

Much like his team was a question mark heading into its inaugural season, Neal’s status was up in the air ahead of the Knights’ debut. The left wing who came to Las Vegas through the expansion draft missed the preseason because of a broken hand sustained on May 12 in Game 1 of the Western Conference Final against the Anaheim Ducks when he was with Nashville.

“James missed most of training camp from his injury and he’s played great hockey the first three games. He’ll probably make that a habit of missing training camp and skating for a couple of days and coming out and dominating,” Knights coach Gerard Gallant joked. “I’m real happy with the way he’s playing, obviously if the goal-scoring is coming. He’s been great for us and that’s great to see.”

Neal was at a loss for words following last Tuesday’s win when he was informed he had the game-winner in all three games.

“I don’t even know what to say, it’s just a special time for our group and our team and everything that’s happened, it’s just kind of a whirlwind and we’re doing everything we can to play good hockey,” Neal said. “When you’re feeling it, you think you can score on every shot, you just want the chances, you want the puck in the right spots and give yourself a chance to score when you’re shooting it.”

Neal’s most productive season was with the Pittsburgh Penguins in 2011-12, when he scored 40 goals in 80 games. In his last three seasons, all with Nashville, he averaged 25.6 goals per season.

While he’s on a remarkable pace at the beginning of his tenure in Nevada, Neal knows that with scoring streaks, come scoring droughts. So for now it’s simply a matter of taking advantage of the team’s momentum, while feeding off the energy of a city that has come together following the tragic Oct. 1 shooting at an outdoor concert on The Strip.

“For our team, for the city, (we’re) playing for the victims and everyone affected,” Neal said. “I think every guy in this dressing room is doing that. I’m proud of all our guys and we’ll continue to do everything we can to uplift the city and be able to be a big part of it.”

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Preds hope Moses signing will boost third line offensively

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The Nashville Predators wanted more depth scoring and they went all the way to the KHL to get it. Steve Moses, who signed a one-year, $1 million contract, is tentatively projected to play on Nashville’s third line and could make that unit significantly more dangerous.

“Goal-scoring was something we wanted to put more of in our lineup,” Predators GM David Poile told The Tennessean. “Here’s a guy that’s free, here’s a guy that has all those qualities and why not take a chance on somebody like that? He’s not big, but he’s fast and he can score. Hopefully, there’s got to be a place for him in our lineup.

“Last year, we had two lines, the (Mike) Fisher and (Mike) Ribeiro lines, that were very prolific offensively. And our third and fourth lines (were) somewhat equal, very good defensively, (but) didn’t provide, with all due respect, too much for us offensively. I don’t want to be greedy, but would like to try to push the envelope a little bit more.”

Nashville had six forwards last season that recorded at least 15 goals in Filip Forsberg, Craig Smith, James Neal, Colin Wilson, Mike Fisher, and Mike Ribeiro. When they were all healthy, combinations of those forwards typically compromised the team’s top two lines. After those six though, Nashville’s next best forward when it came to goals scored was Taylor Beck, who netted eight markers in 62 contests.

Meanwhile, Moses had 36 goals and 57 points in 60 games with the KHL’s Jokerit Helsinki. He is a product of the University of New Hampshire, but the 26-year-old has spent the last three seasons playing in Europe.

Former UNH teammate James van Riemsdyk said, “(Moses) skates like the wind. He’s really well built. He won’t get thrown around over here.”

Related: Video: New Pred Moses opens U.S. scoring at Worlds with beauty goal

Poll: Will Kessel score 40?

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In acquiring Phil Kessel, Pittsburgh landed one of the NHL’s premier snipers — a five-time 30-goal scorer that, according to head coach Mike Johnston, will open training camp playing alongside arguably the NHL’s best set-up man in Sidney Crosby.

So, unsurprisingly, there’s been plenty of talk about how much Kessel’s going to score.

Kessel’s former coach in Toronto, Ron Wilson, sees him netting “at least” 40 goals in his first year as a Penguin. Pundits have since debated various over/under totals (see here and here and here), but the 40 benchmark seems to be the one most identify with.

Why?

Well for starters, Kessel’s never got there before. His career high is 37 — achieved twice — and few have forgotten last year’s disappointing campaign, in which he only found the back of the net 25 times.

There’s also no real guarantee who his center will be.

While Johnston suggested Kessel will start with Crosby, it’s unclear if they’ll stick together beyond the preseason.

“We have eight exhibition games, so with the games we want to try combinations together so we’re ready for the beginning of the season,” Johnston said, per NHL.com. “We want to give guys a chance to play together, but we also want to take a look at some different looks in practice. So don’t get enamored if some practice there are some different combinations.

“We need to take a look at it as we head in and approach the beginning of the season.”

Some, like NHL.com’s Dan Rosen, argue that Kessel is actually a better fit with Evgeni Malkin — who, you’ll recall, propelled James Neal to his first (and only) 40-goal campaign in 2011-12.

(Neal is also the last Pens winger to score 40 goals in a single season, for what it’s worth.)

So there are plenty of variables floating around.

Regardless of where he plays or who he plays with, one thing is for certain — next year, Kessel will have the most talented centers of his professional hockey career. Does that translate into a 40-goal campaign?

Vote away…

It’s Pittsburgh Penguins Day at PHT

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Throughout the month of August, PHT will be dedicating a day to all 30 NHL clubs. Today’s team? The Pittsburgh Penguins.

After another disappointing finish in the playoffs, the Pittsburgh Penguins decided to change course by replacing GM Ray Shero and head coach Dan Bylsma with Jim Rutherford and Mike Johnston respectively prior to the start of the 2014-15 campaign. The results, at least as far as last season was concerned, were not desirable.

To be fair, Pittsburgh was strong for much of the campaign and was even in the running for the Presidents’ Trophy through March 12 with a 39-18-10 record. However, they went 4-9-2 for the remainder of the season and they just barely secured the second Wild Card seed. That set up a first round series against the New York Rangers that the Penguins lost in five games.

For a team that’s home to two of the best forwards in the league, the Penguins’ big weakness last season was actually their offense. Years of subpar drafting beyond first round picks and a top-heavy salary balance sheet seemed to finally catch up with the Penguins as they were thin on scoring threats outside of Sidney Crosby and Evgeni Malkin.

Chris Kunitz, James Neal, and Jussi Jokinen provided the Penguins with at least 57 points each in 2013-14, but the 35-year-old Kunitz slid to 40 points, Neal had been dealt to Nashville in exchange for Patric Hornqvist and Nick Spaling, and Jokinen left as an unrestricted free agent. Consequently, Malkin and Crosby were the only Penguins players to record more than 57 points last season.

Pittsburgh went from being tied for the fifth best offense in 2013-14 to finishing in a tie for 18th just one season later. Goaltender Marc-Andre Fleury had a strong campaign and that continued into the 2015 playoffs, but the Penguins provided him with just eight goals of support over five games against the Rangers.

Off-season recap

Rutherford has moved to bolster the Penguins’ offense over the summer. He brought Phil Kessel to Pittsburgh in a blockbuster trade with Toronto that also involved the Penguins conceding 2014 first round pick Kasperi Kapanen. Nearly a month later, Pittsburgh acquired Nick Bonino, Adam Clendening, and a 2016 second round pick from Vancouver in exchange for Brandon Sutter and a 2016 third round selection.

Pittsburgh further addressed its forward depth with the signings of Eric Fehr (three years, $6 million) and Matt Cullen (one-year, $800K).

Combine that with the return of Pascal Dupuis (blood clots) and Pittsburgh’s group of forwards should look significantly different this season.

Nashville Predators ’15-16 Outlook

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If you truly subscribe to the belief that defense wins championships, then you’d have to rank the Nashville Predators high on any list of Stanley Cup contenders.

As detailed in this post, they’re maybe the only team that could afford to even ponder trading a defenseman of Shea Weber’s caliber while not being in rebuild mode. Roman Josi and Seth Jones both boast futures that seem even brighter than their quite-brilliant presents.

Pekka Rinne stands as a sturdy last line of defense, too. The 32-year-old bounced back after a couple of rough seasons by winning 41 games and generating a .923 save percentage.

It’s not just about defense in Nashville any longer – Filip Forsberg and James Neal rank among the weapons Peter Laviolette can unleash – but it’s still the reason to get most excited about this team.

That brings up an intriguing question: what should we expect of Nashville? More specifically, should they be the Central Division favorites?

The Chicago Blackhawks are suffering from a rough off-season in nearly every way imaginable. The St. Louis Blues maintain an impressive core group, yet there’s a funk in the air after another postseason letdown. The Winnipeg Jets haven’t won a playoff game during their time in Winnipeg or Atlanta. The Dallas Stars loaded up this summer, although they still have questions on defense, while the Colorado Avalanche almost seem like a hockey lab experiment at the moment.

Nashville resides in what is likely still the best division in the NHL, but pondering the paragraph above, is it out of line to wonder if the Preds might jump from a second-place Central finish in 2014-15 to the division title next season?

You can’t really fault fans for clamoring to see a first division title banner up in the rafters … and maybe something even more prestigious.