James Neal

Neal, Predators chase Darling in little time

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Are the Nashville Predators starting to get to Scott Darling? Could it be that James Neal has the young Chicago Blackhawks netminder’s number?

It might be a little early to ask such a question, but the bottom line is that the power forward has given the Predators a nice lead so far in Game 6.

The prettiest tally was his first, as he beat Darling with a simple (but nice) move just 1:10 into the contest:

Not long after, Neal deflected a shot in for a power-play goal to make it 2-0 quite early in the game.

Getting a 2-0 lead is very nice for Nashville, but a litany of opponents would tell the Predators not to get too comfortable against the dangerous Blackhawks attack.

Still, it’s certainly a positive development for the Preds, and one can only wonder how long the leash is for Darling.

Update: It turns out that the leash is fairly short for Darling. Patrick Sharp made it 2-1, but moments later, Matt Cullen scored a 3-1 goal. Corey Crawford was summed back into the Chicago net less than 12 minutes into the first period … and that’s that.

For now?

Video: Blackhawks’ Shaw fined $2,000 for diving/embellishment

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Blackhawks forward Andrew Shaw has been fined $2,000 by the NHL for diving/embellishment.

From the league:

Shaw was issued a Warning following an incident flagged by NHL Hockey Operations during NHL Game No. 228 against Tampa Bay on Nov. 11. His second Citation, which triggered the $2,000 fine, was issued for an incident during NHL Game No. 1138 against Los Angeles on March 30. Shaw drew a delayed penalty to Los Angeles forward Mike Richards on the play, at 5:24 of the first period. The penalty to Richards was nullified when Chicago scored seven seconds later.

Shaw becomes the ninth player to be fined for diving/embellishment this season, joining Washington’s Tom Wilson, Toronto’s Richard Panik, Islanders goalie Michal Neuvirth (fine occurred while with Buffalo), the Islanders’ Cal Clutterbuck, Detroit’s Gustav Nyquist, Florida’s Vincent Trocheck, Nashville’s James Neal and Montreal’s P.K. Subban, who has been fined twice.

Preds’ Neal, Weber set to return vs. Stars

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The Nashville Predators will have captain Shea Weber and forward James Neal in the lineup tonight when they play host to the Dallas Stars.

Weber has missed three games due to a lower body injury.

Neal has been out of the Nashville lineup since March 9 due to an upper body injury.

Neal, who had 22 goals and 35 points in 63 games prior to the injury, is expected to return on the Preds’ top line alongside Filip Forsberg and Mike Ribeiro.

“Especially early on, they were our line that carried us,” coach Peter Laviolette said per the Tennessean. “They came out at the start of the season really strong as a group. I don’t think that James will have a problem jumping back in on either line. He’s played with (Ribeiro), he’s played with (center Mike Fisher).”

Weber has 45 points in 75 games this season while averaging 26:22 in ice time.

Nashville could also have Matt Cullen in the lineup tonight. He’s missed five games due to a lower body injury.

Caps’ Wilson the latest to be fined for diving

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Washington forward Tom Wilson has been fined $2,000 for diving/embellishment, the NHL announced on Friday.

From the league:

Wilson was issued a Warning following an incident flagged by NHL Hockey Operations during NHL Game No. 936 against Toronto on March 1. His second Citation, which triggered the $2,000 fine, was issued for an incident during NHL Game No. 1057 at Minnesota on March 19.

Wilson received a minor penalty for embellishment on the play, at 14:45 of the second period.

Video of the incident:

With that, Wilson becomes the eighth player to be fined for diving this season, joining Toronto’s Richard Panik, Islanders goalie Michal Neuvirth (fine occurred while with Buffalo), the Islanders’ Cal Clutterbuck, Detroit’s Gustav Nyquist, Florida’s Vincent Trocheck and Nashville’s James Neal and Montreal’s P.K. Subban, who has been fined twice.

Three reasons why Nashville’s in a tailspin

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On Feb. 17, Nashville whipped San Jose 5-1 to move to 39-12-6, the best record in the league. With 84 points, the Preds had a comfortable lead atop the NHL and Central Division standings.

How times have changed.

Since that win, Nashville has gone 4-9-2 and lost its hold on both. Last night’s 3-2 OT loss to Minnesota gave a startling example of how much the Preds have struggled; on Jan. 13, Minnesota trailed Nashville by 21 (yes, twenty-one) points in the standings.

With last night’s win, the Wild had trimmed it to nine.

“It’s frustrating for everybody,” head coach Peter Laviolette told the Tennessean. “At the end of the night, you’ve got to win games.”

“We’re not playing the right way to close out games right now,” added veteran forward Matt Cullen. “And we’ve got 10 games to figure it out.”

So, what’s wrong with the Preds? Three things to consider…

1. Neal, Ribeiro and Forsberg have gone cold.

Ice cold, in fact. After combining to form one of the NHL’s top lines through the first few months, James Neal, Mike Ribeiro and Filip Forsberg have been split up, put back together, split up again… and now Neal’s out, having missed the last three games with an upper-body ailment.

Even before the Neal injury, though, there were signs of trouble. Neal had just one goal in his last 11 games, Forsberg only has five points in his last 16 and Ribeiro has just three points in his last 11. Yes, the Preds are one of the league’s most well-balanced scoring teams — eight guys have 13 goals or more — but it’s clear that a good portion of the team’s success relies on the production of the “Big Three.”

2. They’re no longer dominating at home.

For most of this season, Bridgestone Arena has been an extremely difficult place for opponents. En route to racing out to the aforementioned 39-12-6 start, the Preds went a remarkable 25-3-1 at home — securing 51 of a possible 58 points — and their three regulation losses came against very good opponents in Anaheim, Chicago and Pittsburgh.

Lately, though, things have turned.

Tuesday’s loss to the Wild was Nashville’s fifth straight at home, its longest skid of the season. Over that stretch, the Preds have allowed 18 goals — 3.6 per game, well above their season average of 2.8 — and defenseman Roman Josi suggested part of the problem is Nashville’s failure to play a full 60 minute game.

“The last periods just have to be better,” Josi said, per the team website. “We have to go after the goal and not take a step back. We have to find a way to win these games. It is all about winning in this league.

“You don’t get points just for playing well. We have to bear down and get two points.”

3. They’ve become the hunted.

A 75/1 longshot to win the Stanley Cup at the beginning of the season, the Preds were, for quite some time, the NHL’s biggest surprise story… but surprises wear off. Around the same time they raced to the top of the NHL standings, the Preds began to be a target for other teams, like Central Division rival Chicago.

Back in mid-February, ‘Hawks d-man Brent Seabrook made mention of the fact his team was targeting Nashville, and how “difficult” it was to make up ground.

“They seem to be winning every game,” Seabrook explained.

“It’s going to be tough,” Kris Versteeg added, when asked about catching the Preds. “They’re rolling.”

Both the ‘Hawks and the Blues have managed to erase Nashville’s once-commanding lead in the Central. Heading into Wednesday night’s action, St. Louis, who trailed by nine points on Feb. 26, is now one point up with two games in hand; Chicago, meanwhile, trails by just four with three in hand.