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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

Stars’ Stephen Johns nears return after 22-month absence

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DALLAS (AP) — Star defenseman Stephen Johns appears on track to return to Dallas’ lineup for the first time in 22 months on Saturday.

Johns, who returned from a conditioning assignment with Texas of the AHL, was not active for Thursday’s game but will travel with the Stars for their game at Minnesota.

He has not played in an NHL game since March 29, 2018, because of post-traumatic headaches.

”There’s a good chance he’ll play Saturday,” interim coach Rick Bowness said, ”so we’ll evaluate that (Friday) and Saturday morning.”

In two games for Texas, Johns had a goal and three assists.

The Stars could be in need of a defenseman after Miro Heiskanen didn’t play the second half of Thursday’s 4-1 loss to the Buffalo Sabres because of an upper-body injury. Bowness said Heiskanen’s availability is considered day to day.

PHT Morning Skate: Under-the-radar rookies; Ovechkin’s suspension

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Welcome to the PHT Morning Skate, a collection of links from around the hockey world. Have a link you want to submit? Email us at phtblog@nbcsports.com.

• Find out a little bit more about Nicklas Backstrom‘s new contract extension with Washington. (Nova Caps)

• Here’s a list of five-under-the-radar rookies that could compete for the Calder Trophy. (The Hockey News)

• Three-on-three hockey is awesome, but don’t expect to see much more of it going forward. (TSN)

• Martin Brodeur is hoping to get a bigger role with the Devils going forward. (NHL.com)

• Check out Elliott Friedman’s latest 31 thoughts blog. (Sportsnet)

• Even though hockey has changed a lot, there’s still a need for “muscle”. (National Post)

• Have you ever wondered what it takes to be an effective pest in the NHL? (ESPN)

• Sabres top prospect Dylan Cozens is inspiring a lot of young athletes in Yukon. (New York Times)

Alex Ovechkin has decided which game he’ll miss as part of his suspension for skipping the All-Star game. (Washington Post)

• NBC Sports Boston breaks down the 10 best left wingers in hockey. Do you agree with this list? (NBC Sports Boston)

Joey Alfieri is a writer for Pro Hockey Talk on NBC Sports. Drop him a line at phtblog@nbcsports.com or follow him on Twitter @joeyalfieri.

The Buzzer: Golden Knights win DeBoer’s debut; Hats off to Ovechkin

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Three Stars

1. Alex Ovechkin, Washington Capitals. Another milestone for the greatest goal scorer to ever play in the NHL. He recorded his 25th career hat trick on Thursday night and reached the 30-goal mark for the 15th consecutive season to start his career, a feat accomplished only by him and Mike Gartner. Read more about it here.

2. David Rittich, Calgary Flames. Huge night for the All-Star goalie as he stopped 35 shots during regulation and overtime and all three shots he faced in a shootout to help lift the Flames to a 2-1 win over the Toronto Maple Leafs. The Flames have now won six of their past seven games. Thanks to the Arizona Coyotes’ loss to the Vancouver Canucks, the Flames are now tied for first place in the Pacific Division.

3. Mark Stone, Vegas Golden Knights. The Golden Knights won Peter DeBoer’s coaching debut on Thursday night, 4-2, over the Ottawa Senators thanks to a big game from Stone. He scored a goal and recorded an assist in his first game back in Ottawa as a visiting player. Stone played the first six-and-a-half years of his career with the Senators and was one of the team’s best players during his time there. He was a key part of their 2016-17 run to the Eastern Conference Final and became one of the league’s best two-way players. The Senators traded him to Vegas at the trade deadline a year ago. He received a lengthy ovation from the Ottawa crowd on Thursday.

Other notable performances from Thursday

  • Jaroslav Halak gave up a goal to Sidney Crosby just 24 seconds into the game against the Pittsburgh Penguins on Thursday, then slammed the door shut the right of the night to help the Boston Bruins to a 4-1 win.
  • John Tortorella recorded his 200th win as head coach of the Columbus Blue Jackets in their 3-2 win over the Carolina Hurricanes. It is a huge win for the Blue Jackets and a costly game for the Hurricanes as defenseman Dougie Hamilton exited the game with a nasty looking leg injury. Read about it here.
  • The Minnesota Wild snapped their four-game losing streak with an impressive win over the Tampa Bay Lightning. Read about it here.
  • Sam Montembeault replaced an injured Chris Driedger in the Florida Panthers’ net and helped them get a big win over the Los Angeles Kings.
  • Ilya Kovalchuk continued his great play with the Montreal Canadiens by scoring two goals in a 4-1 win over the Philadelphia Flyers. He now has three goals and seven total points in seven games since joining the Canadiens.
  • Rasmus Dahlin scored his third goal of the season to help the Buffalo Sabres beat the Dallas Stars.
  • John Gibson stopped 33 shots for the Anaheim Ducks as they hand the Nashville Predators their seventh defeat in their past 10 games.
  • Philipp Grubauer stops all 27 shots he faces in a shutout win for the Colorado Avalanche over the San Jose Sharks.
  • Jake Virtanen avoids a suspension earlier in the day and then scores the game-winning goal for the Vancouver Canucks in a big win over the Arizona Coyotes.

Highlights of the Night

This might have been Rittich’s biggest and best save of the night.

Cam Atkinson wasted no time making an impact in his return to the Blue Jackets’ lineup with this assist early in the first period.

Chris Kreider scores a game-winning power play with 30 seconds to play in regulation to help give the New York Rangers a 3-2 win over the New York Islanders.

Blooper of the Night

After whiffing on a shootout attempt earlier this week, Brad Marchand had some more problems on a breakaway.

Auston Matthews tried the lacrosse move and it did not work.

Factoids

  • Cale Makar scored his 10th goal of the season for the Colorado Avalanche, tying him for the most in franchise history for a rookie defenseman. [NHL PR]
  • Patrice Bergeron reached the 20-goal mark for the 11th time in his career, the second most in Bruins franchise history behind only John Buyck. [NHL PR]
  • Capitals goalie Ilya Samsonov is the 10th rookie goalie to ever win nine consecutive decisions during the regular season. [NHL PR]

Scores

Boston Bruins 4, Pittsburgh Penguins 1
Calgary Flames 2, Toronto Maple Leafs 1 (SO)
Florida Panthers 4, Los Angeles Kings 3
New York Rangers 3, New York Islanders 2
Montreal Canadiens 4, Philadelphia Flyers 1
Washington Capitals 5, New Jersey Devils 2
Columbus Blue Jackets 3, Carolina Hurricanes 2
Vegas Golden Knights 4, Ottawa Senators 2
Anaheim Ducks 4, Nashville Predators 2
Minnesota Wild 3, Tampa Bay Lightning 2
Buffalo Sabres 4, Dallas Stars 1
Colorado Avalanche 4, San Jose Sharks 0
Vancouver Canucks 3, Arizona Coyotes 1

Adam Gretz is a writer for Pro Hockey Talk on NBC Sports. Drop him a line at phtblog@nbcsports.com or follow him on Twitter @AGretz.

Wild hold on against Lightning, snap losing streak

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What a difference 48 hours made for the Minnesota Wild.

When we saw them on Tuesday night they were getting dominated on the scoreboard and embarrassed by a lineup card gaffe that forced them to play with a shorthanded defense.

On Thursday, they went toe-to-toe with one of the NHL’s best teams and snapped their four-game losing streak with an impressive 3-2 win against the Tampa Bay Lightning. It is just the WIld’s second win in their past eight games, and their first in regulation during that stretch.

Ryan Suter‘s goal late in the second period ended up going in the books as the game-winner, while Zach Parise and Joel Eriksson Ek also scored for the Wild. Goalie Alex Stalock stopped 18 out of 20 shots he faced, including a shot from Tampa Bay’s Steven Stamkos at the buzzer to secure the win.

Nikita Kucherov scored both goals for the Lightning in the losing effort.

The Wild desperately needed this to win because their recent slide has really started to bury them in the Western Conference playoff race. Their playoff hopes are barely flickering right now and every point the rest of the way is going to be massive. They have almost no margin for error.

The most impressive part of this particular win is just how strong they looked for most of the game, especially on the heels of such a lackluster performance on Tuesday night. Coach Bruce Boudreau said on Wednesday he had two options after that game — either “bag skate” the team, or send them home and tell them to get away from hockey (via Michael Russo). He chose the latter, saying they would find out on Thursday if it was the right decision. It seemed that it was as they took what has been one of the NHL’s hottest teams (11-1-0 in their previous 12 games entering Tuesday), and one of the most dominating offenses, and for the most part completely shut it down.

The Lightning were on a 16-5-1 run since the start of December (second best record in the league behind only the Pittsburgh Penguins during that stretch) and averaging more than 32 shots and 3.5 goals per game. On Thursday, the Wild limited them to just two goals and only 20 shots. That shot total is the Lightning’s third-lowest of the season, and the lowest since a November 19 against the St. Louis Blues.

Thursday’s game is the first of a 12-game stretch where the Wild play 11 games on home ice, where they have actually played extremely well this season. If they are going to make any sort of a move toward a playoff spot, this is their chance.

Adam Gretz is a writer for Pro Hockey Talk on NBC Sports. Drop him a line at phtblog@nbcsports.com or follow him on Twitter @AGretz.