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Neal off to an ice-cold start with Flames

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At times, James Neal can seem like a one-dimensional player. Unfortunately for the Flames – and certainly to Neal’s frustration – we haven’t really seen much of his vaunted goal-scoring in Calgary.

Through 13 games, Neal only has two goals and one assist for three points. Things have been especially lousy lately, as the 31-year-old only has one point in his last nine games. To rub a little salt in his wounds, Neal’s only point was the lone goal as the Penguins shellacked the Flames by the unreal score of 9-1.

It’s a bit mind-blowing to contrast this start with the way he began last season. To jog your memory: Neal somehow scored the game-winning goal in three straight games, opening his short Vegas Golden Knights career with a four-game goal streak (six tallies during that dizzying run).

How concerned should the Flames be about Neal’s slow start? Let’s consider some of the factors.

Age of decline?

The Flames likely knew that Neal’s contract is risky, at least when it comes to giving a 31-year-old winger such term. Much like with Milan Lucic and the Oilers, the struggles have come a lot sooner than expected, though.

Generally speaking, snipers tend to hit the aging curve the hardest, so Calgary might just need to accept diminishing returns.

Bad luck

That said, it’s unlikely that Neal will struggle this much, at least for the remainder of 2018-19.

As you’d expect with a goal-scorer who isn’t scoring goals, Neal’s not getting a lot of bounces. His two goals in 13 games have come from 33 shots on goal, translating to a 6.1 shooting percentage. To put it mildly, that poor shooting luck is out of the ordinary for a winger who enjoyed a 12.4 shooting percentage last season, and has connected on 12 percent for his career.

So, yeah, expect Neal to rebound. That said, will he rebound enough for the Flames not to regret committing to him for five years at $5.75 million per season, even now? It could be tough because …

Odd man out

Neal’s not exactly enjoying the most fruitful opportunities to score.

As you can see from these Natural Stat Trick teammates numbers, Sam Bennett is far and away his most common linemate, while those two have been joined by the not-exactly-imposing likes of Mark Jankowski. With 26 points during each of his last seasons (despite missing just one game during that span), Bennett continues to be an enigma for Calgary.

(Well, he’s either an enigma, or the puzzle’s been solved and he’s just not very good.)

The thing is, barring injuries, a third-line role honestly makes a lot of sense.

Elias Lindholm has been dynamite with Johnny Gaudreau and Sean Monahan. Even if Lindholm and Neal end up being equally effective, Neal would give that top trio three left-handed shots, while Lindholm brings versatility as a righty.

Perhaps there could eventually be some headway on the second line, as Michael Frolik‘s somehow been a healthy scratch this season. That’s not really an optimal situation, however, as Frolik combines with Matthew Tkachuk and Mikael Backlund to form the puck-hogging “3M Line.” Maybe Neal’s finishing touch would add a new wrinkle to Backlund/Tkachuk (for all that trio’s strengths, they tend to suffer from bad puck luck), but it sure feels like messing with a good thing.

Man advantage

There is one area where Neal could conceivably deliver more value: the power play.

So far, Neal’s on the second unit, while the first group goes with Gaudreau, Monahan, Tkachuk, Lindholm, and Mark Giordano. It’s easy to imagine a scenario where Neal might bring added value to a Flames top unit, as he can use his size to screen a goalie. Perhaps just as importantly, Neal isn’t afraid to pull the trigger and unleash his deadly shot, so that could be a solution if Bill Peters diagnoses a problem of over-passing.

***

It’s honestly pretty impressive that Neal’s always found a way to score at least 20 goals during his first 10 seasons in the NHL. He did it as a rookie, collecting 24. Neal did so even during the season he was shipped to Pittsburgh, when he couldn’t buy a bucket (1 goal on 52 SOG in 20 games after he already had 21 goals in 59 games with Dallas).

Remarkably, Neal even hit that mark during the streak-running, lockout-shortened 2012-13 season, as he generated 21 goals in just 40 games. (Neal sure was prolific alongside Evgeni Malkin, at least before that situation hit an iceberg.)

Injuries, trades, and even partial work stoppages haven’t really kept Neal from scoring goals, so chances are, he’ll get back on track soon. That doesn’t mean it will be as easy as he often makes it look, however.

MORE: Your 2018-19 NHL on NBC TV schedule

James O’Brien is a writer for Pro Hockey Talk on NBC Sports. Drop him a line at phtblog@nbcsports.com or follow him on Twitter @cyclelikesedins.

The Playoff Buzzer: Wild Card teams are 4-for-4

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  • The Washington Capitals blew 2-0 and 3-1 leads to drop Game 7 against the Carolina Hurricanes. Former Capitals player and frequent Game 7 star Justin Williams played a big role in Carolina’s 2OT winning goal.
  • With Carolina’s victory, all four Wild Card teams have advanced to Round 2.

Hurricanes 4, Capitals 3 [2OT] (CAR wins 4-3)
The Capitals got off to a terrific start. Andre Burakovsky and Tom Wilson scored in the first 6:23 minutes of the contest, but rather than fall apart, the Hurricanes dug in. It wasn’t until 2:56 of the third period when the Hurricanes caught up thanks to a Jordan Staal goal. Washington battled hard for the rest of the third period, but once overtime started the game was all Carolina until finally they broke through when Brock McGinn tipped in a Jason Williams shot. With that, the defending Stanley Cup champions are done and a franchise that last made the playoffs in 2009 is going to Round 2.

Three Stars

1. Brock McGinn, Carolina Hurricanes.
He got the series-winning goal and registered an assist on Teuvo Teravainen‘s marker. This was the 25-year-old’s first playoff series and prior to it he had 36 goals in 240 career regular season games. Of those 36 goals, only two were game-winners.

2. Jaccob Slavin, Carolina Hurricanes.

Assisted on three of the Hurricanes’ four goals. He also led both teams with 38:27 minutes of ice time in the 2OT contest. He finished the series with nine assists in seven games.

3. Andre Burakovsky, Washington Capitals.

Got the scoring started just 2:13 minutes into the contest off a superb steal. It was his first goal of the series.

One goal Dougie Hamilton will be happy is forgotten

It didn’t end up defining the game, but Alex Ovechkin outplayed Hamilton on this goal. If Washington won this game, this goal might have been a big part of the story.

Factoids of the night

Thursday’s Games

Game 1: Blue Jackets at Bruins, 7:00 p.m. ET, NBCSN
Game 1: Stars at Blues, 9:30 p.m. ET, NBCSN

Ryan Dadoun is a writer for Pro Hockey Talk on NBC Sports. Drop him a line at phtblog@nbcsports.com or follow him on Twitter @RyanDadoun.

No More Champs: Hurricanes oust Capitals in 2OT

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Not even the defending Stanley Cup champion Washington Capitals were immune in one of the craziest opening rounds ever seen. Brock McGinn tipped a shot by Justin Williams in double overtime in a series-clinching 4-3 victory for the Carolina Hurricanes in Game 7.

Early on, it didn’t look like this would be a dramatic contest. Andre Burakovsky stripped the puck away in the Hurricanes’ zone and then beat goalie Petr Mrazek to put Washington on the board just 2:13 minutes into the game. Just four minutes later, Alex Ovechkin outplayed Hurricanes defenseman Dougie Hamilton before feeding the puck to Tom Wilson, who made the game 2-0.

Carolina hung in there though. Sebastian Aho scored a shorthanded goal at 9:51 of the second period to cut the lead in half. Evgeny Kuznetsov regained the two-goal lead at 13:22 of the second period, but Teuvo Teravainen answered right back at 16:37.

Early in the third period, Jordan Staal got a clean shot on Braden Holtby that he managed to get by him. It’s one that Holtby arguably should have gotten, but he didn’t have help on that play either and the end result was the game was tied.

From there, Carolina was a dominant force in overtime and it looked more and more like it was just a matter of time before the Hurricanes beat Holtby one more time. It took a while, but it happened.

Just like that, all four wild-card teams have advanced. Washington is out. Pittsburgh, which won the Cup in 2016 and 2017, is out. Vegas, which got to the Stanley Cup Finals last year, is out. Tampa Bay, which tied an NHL record with 62 wins in the regular season, is out.

This year has reinforced the notion that anything can happen in the playoffs. Carolina will face the New York Islanders in Round 2 and while the Hurricanes might be the underdogs, that hasn’t been a bad spot to be in.

MORE: Round 2 schedule, TV info

Ryan Dadoun is a writer for Pro Hockey Talk on NBC Sports. Drop him a line at phtblog@nbcsports.com or follow him on Twitter @RyanDadoun.

NHL Stanley Cup Playoffs 2019: Round 2 schedule, TV info

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We’re down to eight.

With the last Game 7 out of the way in Round 1 of the Stanley Cup Playoffs, we can now look ahead to all that Round 2 will bring.

The battle for the 2019 Stanley Cup continues as eight teams vie to become this year’s champion, and there won’t be a repeat after the Washington Capitals got bounced in Game 7 on Wednesday. All four wildcard teams are in. All four divisional winners are out. It’s been a wild ride and there are still three rounds to go.

Here is the full Round 2 schedule with the all-important TV information: 

MORE: 2019 Stanley Cup Playoffs: Schedule, Bracket, Streams and More

For the third consecutive postseason, NBC Sports’ coverage of Stanley Cup Playoff first-round games on NBCUniversal cable networks (NBCSN, USA Network and CNBC), as well as NHL Network, will air side-by-side and will be available for streaming on NBCSports.com and the NBC Sports app in local markets alongside regional sports network game telecasts. (Local blackouts apply in Las Vegas and Pittsburgh in the first round).


Scott Billeck is a writer for Pro Hockey Talk on NBC Sports. Drop him a line at phtblog@nbcsports.com or follow him on Twitter @scottbilleck

WATCH LIVE: Capitals, Hurricanes meet in Game 7

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Game 7: Carolina Hurricanes at Washington Capitals, 7:30 p.m. ET (Series tied 3-3)
NBCSN
Call: Kenny Albert, Eddie Olczyk, Pierre McGuire
Series preview

Stream here

Tonight’s pre-game coverage on NBCSN begins at 6:30 p.m. ET with NHL Live, hosted by Kathryn Tappen alongside analysts Jeremy Roenick and Keith Jones.

NBC Sports begins its exclusive coverage of the Second Round of the Stanley Cup Playoffs tomorrow with a Game 1 doubleheader on NBCSN. Coverage starts at 7 p.m. ET between the Columbus Blue Jackets and Boston Bruins, followed by the Dallas Stars-St. Louis Blues series at 9:30 p.m. ET. Thursday’s doubleheader pre-game coverage begins on NBCSN at 6 p.m. ET with NHL Live.