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NHL on NBCSN: Oilers’ Neal comfortable again in bounce-back season

NBCSN’s coverage of the 2019-20 NHL season continues with Wednesday’s matchup between the Philadelphia Flyers and Edmonton Oilers. Coverage begins at 9:30 p.m. ET on NBCSN. You can watch the game online and on the NBC Sports app by clicking here.

Dave Tippett flew to Toronto in August to see a player he coached as a rookie and was now getting the opportunity to do so again a decade later. It was in 2008-09 that the Edmonton Oilers head coach, in his final season with the Dallas Stars, was introduced to a young winger with promise.

James Neal scored 24 goals in his first NHL season, and followed that up with 48 over his next 157 NHL games. He made his mark and let it be known he was a goal scorer at this level, one you can count for at least 20 a year. He did that, consistently, for his first 10 seasons, including hitting 40 while with the Pittsburgh Penguins in 2011-12 and 31 in his second year with the Nashville Predators.

The goals kept coming in each of his first four NHL stops, but 2018-19 was clearly the aberration year. After playing in back-to-back Stanley Cup Finals, Neal found himself in Calgary uncomfortable. Two straight short summers left his body beat up a bit and didn’t allow him the time for a proper training schedule he felt he needed in order to be ready. It showed in the results.

While the Flames were having success, Neal was struggling. Mightily. In 63 games he only scored seven times and his shooting percentage, which was a career 12.7% entering last season, tumbled down to 5%.

Change was needed and Neal was happy to move on to a new opportunity, thanks to Milan Lucic.

“I think we both just needed a fresh start,” Neal said last week. “I appreciate he had to waive his no-trade clause for us to switch spots. I thank him for that.”

When Tippett met with Neal over the summer, he saw a player who was motivated to erase a forgettable year and a player who had plenty to prove. Through six games, the “real deal” is back to his old self with an NHL-best eight goals.

“I give him credit. He’s come in here, he’s a real energized player, he’s helped our group,” said Tippett. “Not just scoring goals but giving us some juice in the locker room.”

“I’ve scored my whole career,” Neal said after netting four against the New York Islanders last week. “I’ve put pressure on myself to be a goal scorer and wanted that pressure. Last year was a tough year and I wanted a chance prove myself and obviously things worked out in the summer with the trade.”

Motivated, Neal put in another summer training with former NHLer Gary Roberts, who’s become one of the go-to workout gurus for hockey players. The two have worked together since Neal was 15, 

That was the physical part. The on-ice part was a simple change in his positioning. Neal started to rely too much on his shot, feeling his natural scoring ability would succeed more often than not. Last season it clearly didn’t. Neal found himself straying further from the net, leading to low-percentage shot attempts. He focused on what worked in the past: getting to those “dirty” areas of the ice for rebounds, redirects, tip-ins, and higher-percentage shots. That works, especially on the power play, as six of his eight goals so far have come with the man advantage.

“He’s around the net,” said Oilers coach Dave Tippett. “Look where he scores from. He’s around the net and the puck’s finding him.”

Indeed. Look where he scored from. Using IcyData’s shot map data, you can see where the concentration of Neal’s shots have come from dating back to the 2016-17 season, when he netted 23 goals. 

2016-17 Even Strength
2017-18 Even Strength
2018-19 Even Strength

Now we come to this season, and while still early, you can see that Neal is finding his spot — mostly on the power play — and capitalizing.

(L) 2019-20 Even Strength / (R) 2019-20 Power Play

The success on the power play for Neal is a result from all of the extra attention placed on Leon Draisaitl and Connor McDavid. His left-handed shot, as well as McDavid being a lefty, has opened up space for better opportunities with the man advantage. In Calgary, Neal played a total of 17:49, per Natural Stat Trick, with the Flames’ top power play unit. He’s already up to 21:04 with Oilers after being given the chance due to an illness that sidelined Alex Chiasson at the start of the season.

Neal’s low shooting percentage and history of scoring goals made him an easy bounce-back candidate for this season. He’s in a situation where he’s set up to succeed. Playing for a coach who knows him; sought after by an organization that had confidence in him; and getting the opportunities to further erase the memory of last season. He needed the change of scenery and as he puts it, he’s having fun playing hockey again.

“That’s why we got him,” said Draisaitl. “Nealer’s a goal scorer and he’s done that so far. It’s great to see.”

Kathryn Tappen will host NHL Live on Wednesday with analysts Patrick Sharp, Roenick and NHL insider Bob McKenzie. Chris Cuthbert and Ray Ferraro will have the call of Flyers-Oilers from Rogers Place in Edmonton, Alberta.

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Sean Leahy is a writer for Pro Hockey Talk on NBC Sports. Drop him a line at phtblog@nbcsports.com or follow him on Twitter @Sean_Leahy.

The Buzzer: Streaks end for Capitals and Hurricanes

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Three Stars

1. Joel Edmundson, Carolina Hurricanes

Let’s be honest, Edmundson’s start in Carolina has been forgettable at best. He hasn’t been all that effective by any measure, having a negative impact on defense, and failing to score a single point through his first 17 games with the Hurricanes.

The Hurricanes have a big edge against the Senators on paper, and that translated to the on-ice product on Monday, and Edmundson took advantage. He scored a goal and two assists for three points, had a +3 rating, fired three shots on goal, and blocked a shot.

As you’d expect Edmundson’s three-point night wasn’t the only strong part of Carolina’s 8-2 win …

2. Sebastian Aho, also Hurricanes

Aho arguably played a bigger role in Carolina ending its four-game losing streak than Edmundson did.

The still-a-bit-underrated star scored the game-winning goal shorthanded (and unassisted), finishing Monday with two goals overall. Aho generated a +4 rating and went 9-6 on faceoffs.

Aho now has eight goals and 13 points in 18 games in 2019-20. This has been a slightly slow start for Aho so far, judging by a low on-ice save percentage (81.9 at even strength versus career average of 90.2 before Monday’s game) and so-so offensive numbers by his high standards. Maybe a hot game will get the ball/puck rolling in the right direction?

3. Evgeny Kuznetsov, Washington Capitals

While the Hurricanes’ losing streak ended, the Capitals’ winning streak closed off at six on Monday.

Kuznetsov is the main reason Washington was able to continue Arizona’s run of blown leads, even though the Coyotes eventually won in a shootout. He showed plenty of speed and skill, collecting two goals and coming one attentive T.J. Oshie swipe from having three.

That two-goal output extended Kuznetsov’s point streak to four games, giving him three goals and six assists for nine points during that span, and 18 points in 16 games overall. Kuznetsov also logged 23:28 TOI. While that total was inflated by the two teams getting through a full overtime period, that’s still quite a strong night of work — but not good enough for another Capitals win.

Highlights from both games

With there only being two games, why not enjoy the best of both?

First, the Coyotes beat the Capitals in a shootout:

Meanwhile, there weren’t many twists and turns to the Hurricanes blowing out the Senators:

Brawlin’ Bobby

Bobby Ryan delivered a big hit, and then seemed to win his fight with Brock McGinn. Maybe not the greatest idea for a player who’s been doomed by hand injuries, but then again, Ryan didn’t have much of a choice:

Factoids

  • Rod Brind’Amour has had quite the start to his coaching career. NHL PR notes that his 56 wins is the most for any coach through their first 100 games. If “Rod the Bod” is as good as “Rod the Coach” as he was at winning faceoffs, then watch out.
  • John Carlson generated an assist, so his 29 points ties Brad Marchand for fourth in league scoring. The Caps are 10-0-2 in their last 12 games.
  • Dougie Hamilton has 26 goals through his first 100 games with the Hurricanes. That’s the second-best start for a defenseman in franchise history, according to NHL PR.

Scores

ARI 4 – WSH 3 (SO)
CAR 8 – OTT 2

MORE:
• Pro Hockey Talk’s Stanley Cup picks.
• Your 2019-20 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.

Coyotes cough up 3-0 lead, but end Capitals’ winning streak

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The Arizona Coyotes can’t feel happy about giving up yet another lead (this time a 3-0 advantage), but they were able to salvage a 4-3 shootout win against the Washington Capitals on Monday — albeit barely.

Upon further review

When the Capitals made it 3-3, it was awkwardly funny, as Evgeny Kuznetsov appeared a breath away from scoring a hat trick goal to tie things up. Instead, T.J. Oshie got to the puck first. Would it have been the same difference if Kuznetsov was shooting rather than Oshie? Probably, yet when a standings point (or two) end up on the line, it’s better not to leave anything to doubt. All the laughing on the bench underscored the mixed feelings, and served up a reminder of the “passing to a teammate so they can score the empty-netter” culture of the sport.

It looked like Oshie would then match Kuznetsov with two goals on the night when Oshie scored in overtime — only he didn’t.

The NHL’s review determined that the play was offside, as wires got crossed between Oshie and Lars Eller when Eller lost his footing close to the Coyotes’ blueline. This was the second review that didn’t go Washington’s way on Monday, as an Ilya Samsonov save instead turned out to be a Christian Fischer goal.

That’s how close it really was for Washington. They almost extended their winning streak to seven games, even though the Coyotes generated that 3-0 lead.

On the bright side, there were moments where the bounces did go the Capitals’ way. When the Coyotes were really pouring things on, they fired another breakout pass behind Washington’s defense to Clayton Keller, a soon-to-be $7.15 million player who already scored the game’s first goal. Keller might be “elite in every sense of the word,” but Samsonov showed the agility and patience to wait Keller out, and Keller didn’t even end up with a shot attempt on that breakaway opportunity.

So, it stings for the Capitals to lose in such an anticlimactic fashion, but the “what if?” game could go both ways. Finishing the night at 13-2-4 isn’t really so bad for this quietly dominant team.

Playing with fire when you play with leads

There’s an almost inevitable question when a team squanders a lead, or even comes close to squandering a lead: was this about the Capitals turning it up a notch, or are the Coyotes guilty of sitting on a lead?

It’s a point that’s relevant to the Coyotes, in particular. For one thing, they sometimes lean heavily on goalies, especially when it’s red-hot Darcy Kuemper. (In Monday’s case, Antti Raanta was mostly sharp even as he seems to settle into a backup role.)

The question is also especially pertinent right now, as the Coyotes have given up leads in five consecutive games. Winning the shootout bailed Arizona out on Monday, but they might not always be so lucky, especially when the leads are slimmer than three goals. Perhaps they need to do some soul searching about finding a better balance between avoiding back-breaking mistakes and getting to passive in “turtle mode.”

To be fair, the Capitals have been a tough team to keep down. They’re now 4-1-2 in games where they’ve trailed after the first period.

Kuznetsov on fire

Evgeny Kuznetsov didn’t get that hat trick, despite hats mucking up the ice in DC. He’s still on quite the roll lately. With two goals on Monday, Kuznetsov has a four-game multipoint streak going (three goals, six assists for nine points). That also gives him 18 points in 16 games so far in 2019-20, as he’s clearly shaken off that suspension.

***

The Capitals became the first team in the NHL to hit 30 points this season, sliding to 13-2-4. The Coyotes ended a three-game losing streak and are now 10-6-2. Both teams showed flashes of brilliance while also waving a few red flags of warning about blemishes they need to clean up.

MORE:
• Pro Hockey Talk’s Stanley Cup picks.
• Your 2019-20 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.

Seguin, Benn facing more internal criticism

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Last year it was the team CEO. This year it is the head coach.

For the second year in a row the Dallas Stars top forward duo of Tyler Seguin and Jamie Benn is facing some criticism from within its own building for a lack of early season production. While neither player was specifically mentioned by name, it was pretty clear who coach Jim Montgomery was talking about in the wake of their 3-2 overtime loss to the Winnipeg Jets on Sunday.

The duo — which accounts for more than $19 million of salary cap space — has combined for only four goals on the season and was held off the scoresheet on Sunday. Montgomery said he was “very disappointed” in the production of his team’s top players, and when asked if he is seeing any signs of progress as a follow up he said, “No, are you?”

When asked how to fix it, he talked about reducing ice-time and one-on-one video sessions, while also adding, via The Dallas Morning News, “They got to decide that they want to be a difference maker. I mean, look who scored for the Jets. We got really good big goals by Janmark and Faksa and that’s our third and fourth line.”

It’s not quite as harsh as when CEO Jim Lites went nuclear on the duo 11 months ago, but it is still a pretty direct message to the team’s two best players — score more goals.

What stands out this time around is that the criticism is probably at least a little more justified. When Lites called out the duo last year it came at a time when the Stars were in a playoff position thanks almost entirely to the play of Seguin and Benn. Their line had been carrying the team and providing the most significant chunk of the team’s offense even if their own individual numbers had declined. Had it not been for them the Stars probably would have been well out of playoff contention given how little forward depth the team had around them.

It’s a little different this year. The recent turnaround that has seen the Stars win seven of their past nine games (collecting 15 out of a possible 18 points) has mostly been carried by the goaltending of Ben Bishop and Anton Khubodin, as well as some secondary forwards.

Seguin does have seven points during the nine games (tied for the team lead during that stretch) but has scored just a single goal. Benn has only three assists during the stretch, only six points for the season, and has not scored a goal in 13 games, one of the worst droughts of his career.

There are a few interesting layers to this.

First, you can not ignore the fact that just like last year when they were the focal point of criticism, Seguin and Benn are being crushed by abnormally low shooting percentages scoring on just four of their 93 shots this season (4.3 percent). You can talk about not bearing down, or not getting to the right areas, or not getting enough quality chances all you want, but there is a pretty big element of bad luck for any two players to only score on 4 percent of their shots. As I’ve pointed out several times (including last year when we were talking about Seguin and Benn) nobody scores goals consistently. Even the top goal-scorers go through phases where they score goals in bunches, and then follow it up with lengthy dry spells. We tend to overrate what they are doing during the hot streaks, and overreact to what they are not doing during the cold streaks. In the end it will all balance out.

The concern isn’t the number of shots they aren’t scoring on, but rather the number of shots they aren’t getting. As of Monday Seguin is averaging 3.01 shots per game, more than a full shot less per game compared to a year ago, and his lowest total since he was a first-and-second year player in Boston. Benn is averaging just 2.11 shots per game, the lowest mark of his career. That is where the concern should be. At some point the shooting luck is going to change and more pucks will start going in for them, but if they’re not generating as many shots they still may not score as much as they normally do.

The last point here is the Stars became way too defensive and conservative in the first part of the season (something that Montgomery recently admitted to) and that has to have limited the play of their top players at least a little bit. For the longest time this team wasn’t playing to its strengths.

I like to bet on talent, and it’s more likely than not that Seguin and Benn are going to start scoring more goals sometime soon, not because they are responding well to criticism, but because that is how hockey works (talent eventually wins). When it happens it could make the Stars an interesting team to watch. They have the goaltending, they have two great top-pairing defenders when healthy, and they improved their depth. They just need their top players to get going, something that hasn’t typically been an issue for them during their time in Dallas.

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.

WATCH LIVE: Coyotes visit Capitals on NBCSN

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NBCSN’s coverage of the 2019-20 NHL season continues with Monday’s matchup between the Arizona Coyotes and Washington Capitals. Coverage begins at 6:30 p.m. ET on NBCSN. You can watch the game online and on the NBC Sports app by clicking here.

The Capitals have gotten off to a blazing start to the season, taking points in 16 of their first 18 games and currently sitting with the best record in the NHL. They have earned points in 11 straight games (10-0-1) and enter Monday’s game riding a six-game win streak.

John Carlson is the Capitals’ leading scorer this season and is top-five in the league with 28 points in 18 games (8G-20A). Carlson, who was named the NHL’s First Star of the Month for October, has 10 more points than any other defenseman and already has 10 multi-point games on the year. The 29-year-old is in his 11th season with the Capitals and was named an alternate captain this season following Brooks Orpik’s retirement. Carlson signed an eight-year, $64 million contract prior to the start of last season (under contract through 2026).

The Coyotes have been inconsistent this season and enter Monday on a three-game losing streak. Arizona has been in close games all season, with six of their eight losses coming by one goal.

Phil Kessel was traded to the Coyotes from Pittsburgh this summer in a deal that saw Alex Galchenyuk go the other way. Kessel has had a slow start to his time in Arizona, having scored in just two of his first 17 games (three goals total). Despite Kessel having some early-season struggles, he has been extremely consistent throughout his career. The 32-year-old has scored 20+ goals in 11 straight seasons, while the Coyotes were the only team in the NHL without a 20-goal scorer last year.

[COVERAGE OF COYOTES-CAPITALS BEGINS AT 6:30 P.M. ET – NBCSN]

WHAT: Arizona Coyotes at Washington Capitals
WHERE: Capital One Arena
WHEN: Monday, Nov. 11, 6:30 p.m. ET
TV: NBCSN
LIVE STREAM: You can watch the Coyotes-Capitals stream on NBC Sports’ live stream page and the NBC Sports app.

PROJECTED LINEUPS

COYOTES
Christian DvorakNick Schmaltz – Phil Kessel
Clayton KellerDerek StepanVinnie Hinostroza
Lawson CrouseCarl SoderbergConor Garland
Michael GrabnerBrad RichardsonChristian Fischer

Oliver Ekman-LarssonJason Demers
Jakob ChychrunAlex Goligoski
Aaron Ness – Jordan Oesterle

Starting goalie: Antti Raanta

CAPITALS
Alex OvechkinNicklas BackstromT.J. Oshie
Jakub VranaEvgeny KuznetsovTom Wilson
Chandler StephensonLars EllerRichard Panik
Brendan LeipsicNic DowdGarnet Hathaway

Michal Kempny – John Carlson
Dmitry OrlovRadko Gudas
Jonas SiegenthalerNick Jensen

Starting goalie: Ilya Samsonov

John Walton and Pierre McGuire will have the call from Capital One Arena in Washington, D.C. Ahmed Fareed will host coverage on NHL Live alongside analysts Keith Jones and Anson Carter.