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Can James Neal bounce back after ugly season in Calgary?

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James Neal figures he’s re-invigorated.

One can assume the salivating prospect of playing alongside Connor McDavid would have that sort of effect. For Neal, it could also mean putting behind him a horrible season where he failed to hit double-digit goals for the first time in his career and finished with just 19 points in 63 games.

The 2018-19 season made Neal the biggest bust of last year’s free-agent crop. Despite playing on the team that was tops in the Western Conference at the end of the regular season, the only thing Neal’s game topped was the scrap heap. It got so bad that when the Flames needed a win in Game 5 of Round 1 of the 2019 Stanley Cup Playoffs, Neal was parked in the press box as the Flames crashed out of the postseason.

But there’s hope in Edmonton after Ken Holland and the Oilers acquired Neal for Milan Lucic. Hope, because Holland has already done what those previous to him couldn’t: get Lucic out of town. And hope, because as bad as Neal’s season was last year, there’s optimism that he could turn it around this year.

That faith rests in his shooting percentage. Never before had Neal shot below 10 percent in all situations in his career over a full season and never below nine percent in five-on-five situations. Last year, his shooting success was just five percent in all situations and 4.63 percent in five-on-five.

As Willis points out, if that shooting percentage just returns back to the mean, Neal could double his goal total without much extra effort.

[ProHockeyTalk’s 2019 NHL free agency tracker]

Neal’s shot contributions are very good. Using CJ Turtoro’s player comparison tool, you can see just how stark the contrast is between himself and Lucic, who replaces Neal in Calgary.

Take those shot contributions and put them on a line with McDavid and profit?

So there’s it’s a good bet that Neal can contribute. How much so remains to be seen.

He’s still a positive possession player, even during his down year last year (50.58%). Over the past three seasons, he’s been outscored five-on-five, something that hadn’t happened previously since 2008-09. His expected goals were the third-lowest of his career. And he shot just 141 times, the lowest total outside of the lockout-shortened 2012-13 season.

Either last season was a sign of things to come or an outlier for a player fully capable of potting 20 goals. At 31, he isn’t a dinosaur by any means.

Shedding Lucic’s no-movement, $6 million a season contract was a win already. And if Neal is on McDavid’s wing, it will be interesting to see how big of a rebound season he can have.


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: Rangers vs. Bruins on Hockey Day in America

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NBC’s coverage of the 2019-20 NHL season continues with Sunday’s matchup between the Boston Bruins and New York Rangers. Coverage begins at 3 p.m. ET on NBC. You can watch the game online and on the NBC Sports app by clicking here.

Boston looks to be headed to its fourth straight postseason and potentially its first division title since 2013-14, when they won the Presidents’ Trophy with 117 points. They have finished second in the Atlantic in each of the previous two seasons behind the Lightning.

New York sits seven points out of the East Wild Card and enters this matchup on a season-high four-game winning streak after a 3-1 victory at Columbus on Friday to close a three-game road trip. On this run, the Rangers have scored three-plus goals in each game and allowed just six goals total.

After scoring a hat trick against Montreal on Wednesday, David Pastrnak scored again against Detroit on Saturday. He leads the NHL with 42 goal this season and is second in the league with a career-high 82 points. He’s the first Bruin to surpass the 40-goal mark since Glen Murray scored 44 in 2002-03 and Pasta is now on pace for 58 goals – which would be the most by a Bruin since Phil Esposito led the league in goals in 1974-75 (61).

Igor Shesterkin has opened eyes in recent weeks as the potential heir apparent to future Hall of Famer Henrik Lundqvist. After starting his career in the KHL, Shesterkin had been with the Hartford Wolf Pack (AHL) this season before the Rangers called him up in early January. Shesterkin won his first two NHL starts and has gone 6-1-0 with a 2.18 GAA & .941 SV% thus far in his Rangers career, making 40+ saves in three of his six wins.

[COVERAGE BEGINS AT 3 P.M. ET ON NBC]

WHAT: Boston Bruins at New York Rangers
WHERE: Madison Square Garden
WHEN: Sunday, Feb. 16, 3 p.m. ET
TV: NBC
LIVE STREAM: You can watch the Bruins-Rangers stream on NBC Sports’ live stream page and the NBC Sports app.

PROJECTED LINEUPS

BRUINS
Brad MarchandPatrice Bergeron – David Pastrnak
Jake DeBruskDavid KrejciKarson Kuhlman
Anders BjorkCharlie CoyleDanton Heinen
Joakim NordstromSean KuralyChris Wagner

Zdeno CharaCharlie McAvoy
Torey KrugBrandon Carlo
Matt Grzelcyk – Jeremy Lauzon

Starting goalie: Jaroslav Halak

RANGERS
Chris KreiderMika ZibanejadPavel Buchnevich
Artemi PanarinRyan StromeJesper Fast
Phil Di GiuseppeFilip ChytilKaapo Kakko
Brendan LemieuxBrett HowdenGreg McKegg

Brady SkjeiJacob Trouba
Brendan SmithMarc Staal
Ryan LindgrenAdam Fox

Starting goalie: Alexander Georgiev

NBC Sports celebrates Hockey Day in America this Sunday with an NHL tripleheader on NBC and NBCSN, as well as a collection of stories and features which explore hockey’s impact and influence across the U.S.

Coverage shifts to NBCSN at 6 p.m. ET for a Central Division battle as Ryan O’Reilly and the St. Louis Blues head to Music City to battle Roman Josi and the Nashville Predators.

Hockey Day in America pre-game coverage begins at noon ET on NBC from the plaza outside Bridgestone Arena in Nashville, Tenn. Host Liam McHugh and analysts Keith Jones, Anson Carter, and Brian Boucher will anchor pre-game, intermission, and post-game coverage throughout the day.

Military veterans take to the ice with ‘Sled Preds’

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NBC Sports celebrates Hockey Day in America this Sunday with an NHL tripleheader on NBC and NBCSN, as well as a collection of stories and features which explore hockey’s impact and influence across the U.S.

United States Marines Ben Maenza, Joseph Woodke, and John Curtin met while recovering from serious injuries sustained in the line of duty in Afghanistan. After leaving Walter Reed Military Hospital and going their separate ways, Joseph and John moved to Nashville to bring the group back together.

The trio fully committed to sled hockey playing for the Nashville Sled Preds and have gone from novices in the sport to Paralympic hopefuls. From the hospital bed to the elite ranks of American sled hockey, the men share a bond that looks a lot more like family than close friends.

The “Sled Preds” represent another compelling story as part of “Hockey Day in America.”

NBC Hockey Day in America schedule
Red Wings at Penguins – NBC – 12 p.m. ET (Watch live) – 
John Forslund will call the matchup with Joe Micheletti from PPG Paints Arena in Pittsburgh, Pa.

Bruins at Rangers – NBC – 3 p.m. ET (Watch live) – Mike Tirico will call the matchup at Madison Square Garden alongside Pierre McGuire and Mike Milbury.

Blues at Predators – NBCSN –  6 p.m. ET (Watch live) – Chris Cuthbert will call the action from Bridgestone Arena alongside Darren Pang.

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.

Michaels and Tirico recall ‘Miracle on Ice’ in NBCSN special

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NBC Sports celebrates Hockey Day in America this Sunday with an NHL tripleheader on NBC and NBCSN, as well as a collection of stories and features which explore hockey’s impact and influence across the U.S.

Al Michaels may never get tired of talking about “The Miracle on Ice,” and can you really blame him?

NBC Sports will debut a 30-minute special – “Miracle on Ice – 40th Anniversary” – featuring Mike Tirico’s conversation with Michaels on Wednesday, Feb. 19, at 11:30 p.m. ET on NBCSN. Michaels and Tirico look back at the U.S. Olympic men’s ice hockey team’s gold-medal run at the 1980 Winter Olympics in Lake Placid, N.Y.

As you can see from the video above, Michaels and Tirico set the scene, depicting a tough time in America. That stunning victory gave the country a boost, and created an enduring memory. You don’t get much more “Hockey Day in America” than the “Miracle on Ice.”

NBC Hockey Day in America schedule
Red Wings at Penguins – NBC – 12 p.m. ET (Watch live) – 
John Forslund will call the matchup with Joe Micheletti from PPG Paints Arena in Pittsburgh, Pa.

Bruins at Rangers – NBC – 3 p.m. ET (Watch live) – Mike Tirico will call the matchup at Madison Square Garden alongside Pierre McGuire and Mike Milbury.

Blues at Predators – NBCSN –  6 p.m. ET (Watch live) – Chris Cuthbert will call the action from Bridgestone Arena alongside Darren Pang.

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.

U.S. Pond Hockey Championships: ‘The ultimate event in grassroots hockey’

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NBC Sports celebrates Hockey Day in America this Sunday with an NHL tripleheader on NBC and NBCSN, as well as a collection of stories and features which explore hockey’s impact and influence across the U.S.

The 15th anniversary edition of the U.S. Pond Hockey Championships took place in January. Judging from the video above, the festivities earn the tag “the ultimate event in grassroots hockey.” Clearly, pond hockey carries the spirit of “Hockey Day in America.”

The 2020 edition drew 300 teams and 2,400 players. The sheer variety of players is something to behold, including pond hockey participants from Great Britain and Australia.

One of the highlights of the video profiles Reagan Rust, who uses the cheeky Twitter handle @RonaldReagan__. Rust learned about the opportunity to play via Instagram. Noticing that “The Mighty Drunks” of Nashville needed a player, she pounced on the chance to play pond hockey. As a former Beanpot tournament star, Rust fit right in.

NBC Hockey Day in America schedule
Red Wings at Penguins – NBC – 12 p.m. ET (Watch live) – 
John Forslund will call the matchup with Joe Micheletti from PPG Paints Arena in Pittsburgh, Pa.

Bruins at Rangers – NBC – 3 p.m. ET (Watch live) – Mike Tirico will call the matchup at Madison Square Garden alongside Pierre McGuire and Mike Milbury.

Blues at Predators – NBCSN –  6 p.m. ET (Watch live) – Chris Cuthbert will call the action from Bridgestone Arena alongside Darren Pang.

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.