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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.

Matthews-less Maple Leafs look clunky against Flames

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The Toronto Maple Leafs’ weak effort in a 3-1 loss to the Calgary Flames wasn’t merely about missing Auston Matthews. It wasn’t even about the Maple Leafs being without Matthews and unsigned winger William Nylander.

Still, there was a brief stretch that might remind you one of the sneaky things that makes the full-strength version of this Leafs team so potent: they boast the offensive talent to essentially outscore their problems on many nights.

After dominating the puck through two scoreless periods, the Flames finally started breaking through in the third. Sean Monahan made it 1-0 5:39 into the final frame, while his linemate Elias Lindholm hammered home a great pass from Johnny Gaudreau to make it 2-0 less than a minute later.

It looked like the Maple Leafs were going to lose the game with a big thud, and honestly, a deserving one.

Yet, during one comically odd and misleading moment, it seemed like the Maple Leafs somehow tied the game.

Let’s set the stage:

As rudderless as the Maple Leafs seemed for most of the contest, Toronto was gifted a pretty lengthy 5-on-3 opportunity late in regulation. Calgary provided some hearty efforts on the PK, but the Maple Leafs finally broke through once Morgan Rielly sent a great pass to Mitch Marner, who set up a Nazem Kadri with an even sweeter feed.

Then, with about 1:30 left, a chance seemingly beat Mike Smith, prompting Zach Hyman and other Leafs to boisterously celebrate, as it looked like Toronto tied things up 2-2 with its net empty.

Nope, the puck actually was stuck in the twine on the outside of the net, creating an optical illusion that tricked the Maple Leafs and thousands of their hometown fans. There was so much confusion that Toronto was lucky enough to see the play whistled dead.

Instead of it being 2-2, Michael Frolik eventually scored an empty-netter to lock things up at 3-1. Perhaps Matthews would have made the difference in Toronto getting that extra push to steal that game, but hockey justice was served: Calgary was way, way better.

It’s just one game, but the clunky work clearly irritated Maple Leafs fans. With Nylander still in limbo and Matthews on the shelf for at least one month, Toronto still has some credible talent – Kadri has proven to be the sort of center you could easily place on the second line, and John Tavares is John Tavares – yet you wonder if more earthbound ammo might leave Mike Babcock that much more trigger-shy.

However you place the blame, the Maple Leafs struggled in transition in this game, and often asked Frederik Andersen to bail his team out a lot like he’d be doing on his old team, the Anaheim Ducks.

Players like Matthews are special (and fun to watch) because they make difficult athletic accomplishments look easy. Chances are, this will be a grind with him on the shelf, and Monday showed that the Maple Leafs have some serious work to do.

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.

Looking at Johnny Gaudreau’s career, 100 goals in

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Johnny Gaudreau and the Calgary Flames likely experienced mixed feelings following their 5-2 win against the Boston Bruins last night.

Looking at the good side, the Flames won in part because a line other than Gaudreau’s top trio stepped up, as Michael Frolik trumpeted the reunion of the often-puck-dominant “3M Line.” Wednesday also represented a milestone moment for Gaudreau, who scored the 100th goal of his NHL career in his 318th game, putting him at that mark at age 25.

That milestone tally happened during a stretch where the Flames really overwhelmed the Bruins:

The bad news came right after Gaudreau narrowly fell short of NHL goal 101, as Bruins defenseman Charlie McAvoy injured the spritely forward with this questionable, late hit:

As much of a bummer as the injury is – especially if further updates indicate that “Johnny Hockey” would miss some time – it might be fitting that such an event happened. After all, defenders realize that they’re not often going to catch or out-think Gaudreau, so they often try to outright bully him. Let’s not forget that the many slashes he took during certain stretches helped inspire the NHL to cut down on the infractions heading into last season.

Generally speaking, such a vicious approach hasn’t stopped Gaudreau from lighting up scoreboards.

To review, the 25-year-old now has 100 goals and 197 assists for 297 points over 318 NHL games, so Gaudreau could hit two other noteworthy milestones in the near future — health permitting.

It’s fitting that Gaudreau scored a goal in his lone 2013-14 appearance, as he’s been a delight to watch basically since he entered the NHL. Perhaps it might be helpful to consider his place among the elite scorers after hitting the 100-goal plateau?

  • Since Gaudreau entered the NHL, he ranks 12th among all players with those 297 points. Gaudreau stands in front of Vladimir Tarasenko (293), Jakub Voracek (291), and Phil Kessel (290) despite appearing in fewer games.
  • That 100th goal stands out as a rare instance where Gaudreau was the player scoring the easy tap-in. Typically, he really sets the table for his linemates with brilliant playmaking, which is part of the reason why many pundits have been so reluctant to praise Sean Monahan.

Gaudreau’s 197 assists places him in a tie with Brent Burns for ninth-best in the NHL, and the burly Sharks defenseman played in 16 additional games (not to mention logging Norris-level minutes).

  • One remarkable thing about those impressive numbers is that Gaudreau hit the ground running right away as a rookie, while other players were, in many cases, far more experienced.

Gaudreau’s really impressed lately, generating 93 points in his last 86 games between this early season and 2017-18. Despite Sidney Crosby playing in two additional games last season (82 to Gaudreau’s 80), he tied the Penguins playmaker for seventh in the NHL with 60 assists.

While Gaudreau is – understandably – leveraged for heavy offensive usage, it doesn’t hurt that the puck tends to go in the right direction when he’s on the ice, either.

The Flames would be missing one heck of a scorer if Gaudreau needs to heal up before shooting for goal 101 (not to mention assist 200, and point 300 …). Beyond that, hockey fans will miss out on one of the NHL’s most splendid playmakers, so here’s hoping that this is just a minor hiccup.

Update: It looks like things are going well in that regard.

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 Buzzer: Gallagher’s dagger

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Three Stars:

1. John Carlson

Alex Ovechkin scored two goals in Washington’s overtime win, but we have to dock him some imaginary three star points for collecting both tallies from his “office” on the power play. Besides, Carlsson generated more points in the Capitals’ 4-3 overtime win, generating a goal and two assists. He also fired five shots on goal and logged a hearty 26:02 time on ice.

(Neal Pionk ranked as a strong honorable mention for the Rangers, offering up three assists and four blocked shots.)

2. Michael Frolik

Frolik heralded the reunion of “The 3M Line” with a difference-making performance, scoring two early goals in Calgary’s victory against Boston. The defensively responsible forward came very close to collecting a hat trick, sending a shorthanded breakaway attempt just a little too high against Tuukka Rask.

He ended up with a +3 rating, three shots on goal, and even won his two draws.

3. John Gibson

You could easily give the third star to Ryan Kesler, who turned back the clock to score two goals (and was Frolik-close to nabbing a hat trick while barely missing an empty net from way downtown).

Gibson’s been the motor for the Ducks’ defiantly strong start to 2018-19 season, though, and the fantastic goalie fell just 34 seconds short of a shutout, stopping 34 out of 35 shots. The American-born netminder is now on a four-game winning streak.

Highlights of the Night:

OK, it’s probably the lowlight of the night, as Colton Parayko caught up an absolutely brutal turnover in the closing moments of regulation, opening the door for Tomas Tatar and Brendan Gallagher to combine for a stunning Habs game-winner, as you can see in these highlights:

Yeesh.

Patrice Bergeron can do it all.

Factoids

Alex Ovechkin scored two goals from his “office” on the power play, and while not every multi-goal night has been as easy as that looked, it certainly comes easier to Ovechkin than anyone else:

Johnny Gaudreau hit a nice milestone by scoring his 100th goal in his 318th NHL game. He’s not far from hitting 200 assists, either.

Scores

Capitals 4, Rangers 3 (OT)
Canadiens 3, Blues 2
Flames 5, Bruins 2
Ducks 4, Islanders 1

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.

Flames extinguish Bruins’ hot streak

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For a while there, it looked like the Boston Bruins were going to being 2018-19 with a “feast or famine” approach. Would they exchange blowout losses and impressive winning streaks?

Instead, the Bruins got back into Wednesday’s game after the Flames stormed to a 3-0 lead in the first period, but Calgary ultimately prevailed 5-2.

To start things off, the Flames enjoyed some sensational work from Michael Frolik, who celebrated the reunion of “The 3M Line” with two early goals. Frolik nearly netted at hat trick during a stretch where the Flames generated two semi-breakaways on the penalty kill, but he settled for the sort of night that should make another healthy scratch unlikely.

Frolik’s face was almost as entertaining as the tic-tac-toe goal that inspired it:

There were stretches where the Bruins seemed like they might do more than save face.

Most notably, the Bruins began the third period with a healthy 5-on-3 opportunity, yet Boston failed to even register a shot on goal. (To be fair, David Pastrnak found the post, but it was still a weak showing considering the Bruins’ firepower.)

While it was a night Tuukka Rask would like to forget, the veteran goalie deserves some credit for gathering hits wits after a tough first period. One of his better bounce-back moments came when he denied Johnny Gaudreau‘s attempt to score his 101st NHL goal (he scored number 100 during a first-period flurry), a save that preceded a vicious hit by Charlie McAvoy:

Generally speaking, the two teams’ impressive top lines delivered in this one.

Gaudreau hit that 100-goal milestone, and while the Bruins roughed him up quite a bit (even beyond that McAvoy hit), created a lot of chances as usual. Patrice Bergeron scored a sweet goal and an assist, Brad Marchand found the net, and Pastrnak collected a helper to go with a disallowed tally from the first period.

The Flames’ struggles have been confounding, at times, because they’ve fallen short quite often even though they combine Gaudreau-Sean Monahan with that “3M Line” of Frolik, Mikael Backlund, and Matthew Tkachuk. In this case, that second line made the difference.

Thanks to this result, Calgary’s won four of its last five games, while Boston’s four-game winning streak comes to an end.

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.