Hockey Night In Canada Stanley Cup Playoffs 2011

Neal shines at right time for Pens

Categories: PIT vs. TAM, Pittsburgh Penguins, Tampa Bay Lightning

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Pittsburgh Penguins left wing James Neal (18) celebrates with teammate defenceman Matt Niskanen (2) after scoring against the Tampa Bay Lightning during double-overtime in Game 4. (Chris O'Meara/Associated Press) Pittsburgh Penguins left wing James Neal (18) celebrates with teammate defenceman Matt Niskanen (2) after scoring against the Tampa Bay Lightning during double-overtime in Game 4. (Chris O'Meara/Associated Press)
Maybe James Neal wasn't slumping at all.

Perhaps he just has a well-developed sense of the dramatic.

Whatever the case, Neal - who had scored just once since being acquired from Dallas shortly before the NHL trade deadline - got goal No. 2 at a most opportune moment, beating Tampa Bay goalie Dwayne Roloson from along the right-wing boards at 3:38 of double-overtime at the St. Pete Times Forum Wednesday night.

That goal gave the Penguins a 3-2 victory and a 3-1 lead in this opening-round series, with an opportunity to secure a berth in Round 2 by winning Game 5 at Consol Energy Center in Pittsburgh Saturday afternoon.

Neal has had quite a few quality scoring chances since joining the Penguins; the one that ended Game 4 isn't on the list.

He threw the puck toward the Tampa Bay net only because, well, that's never a bad idea in an overtime game.

"I was just thinking, 'shoot,' " Neal said. "The more pucks you get on the net, it didn't matter the angle. ... I'm just trying to get it on net. Get it off hard, and get it off quick."

Not an original plan, but not a bad one, either, as the puck sailed over Roloson's glove.

"I saw it last-second," Roloson said. "It's a little disheartening, but there are no excuses."

For the second game in a row, Pittsburgh built a 2-0 lead, but failed to protect it.

This time, they went in front when Tyler Kennedy scored the Penguins' first power-play goal of the series and Arron Asham rang up his third in four games and they seemed to have the game under control until Martin St. Louis scored on a spectacular effort late in the second period.

That goal had a profound impact on the Lightning and the crowd, and Tampa Bay pushed for the tying goal that it finally got when Sean Bergenheim scored off a goal-mouth scramble at 16:43 of the third.

"It's not part of the plan," Pittsburgh centre Max Talbot said. "They come hard. They were obviously fighting back. You have to give them credit."

Neal deserves a little, too, if only for not giving up on himself when the goals just weren't coming the way anyone expected.

"It's so good for him to score," Pittsburgh winger Pascal Dupuis said. "To see him squeezing the stick like he was was not right, I think. He's been working really hard."

And now he has a game-winning goal in double-overtime to show for his efforts.

One that has to seem like it was almost worth the wait.

Not dead yet

The Lightning, not surprisingly, is adamant that it can come back and win the series.

"This is a long way from over," Roloson said. "We came back from 3-1 down twice when I played in Minnesota.

"We've got the character in this room to do it and we need to play our game for 60 minutes or for however many minutes it's going to take to win."

Coach Guy Boucher was even more resolute.

"I'm one of those guys who believes it's possible until there is absolutely no time left," he said. "I've seen it before, done it before and if it's one game at a time, then this one we lose, next one we win, and we're back in our rink again. The series are never about momentum. They're about desperation."

The Penguins, it should be noted, are hardly ready to write off Tampa Bay.

"Desperate hockey teams are harder to put away," Pittsburgh winger Pascal Dupuis said. "They'll be coming into our building, and they'll be working really hard."

Sure thing misses the target

St. Louis has accounted for four of Tampa Bay's nine goals in this series, and has been their most dangerous forward almost every time he goes over the boards.

So when, with just over five minutes left in regulation and Pittsburgh protecting a 2-1 advantage, Steven Stamkos set him up in front of a basically empty net, it wasn't hard to imagine what could come next.

Except that what should have been one of the easiest goals of the series didn't happen, as St. Louis steered Stamkos' feed wide of the left post.

"I was scared about it going in the net," Pittsburgh goalie Marc-Andre Fleury said. "I was happy it stayed out."

A lucky break for Pittsburgh? Absolutely. The result of intervention by some superior force? Well, maybe it's not out of the question.

"The hockey gods, I guess, were on our side tonight," Dupuis said.

From grinder to sniper

Asham had just five goals during the regular season, and was a virtual afterthought heading into the playoffs.

That's all changed during the past eight days.

He has scored a team-high three goals and has been visible pretty much every time he goes over the boards.

"It's always nice to help the team out," he said.

Indeed, Asham nearly denied Neal the chance to be the hero of Game 4, because he almost ended the game in the middle of the first overtime. Roloson, though, was able to get his left pad on a shot made possible by a Jordan Staal feed.

"I had a couple of chances in the first overtime," Asham said. "I thought [Staal] was going to shoot that one. He surprised me with a pass."

Sluggish starts

Tampa Bay controlled most of the first period in both games played in Pittsburgh, but did not get a good start in either of the ones at the St. Pete Times Forum.

That, defenceman Pavel Kubina suggested, is something that must change if the Lightning hopes to extend its season past Saturday.

"It's tough when you're down two goals and nothing is working in the first period," he said. "When Marty scored [late in the second period], we took over and I thought we played our style.

"We tied it, then had a few chances in overtime, but we have to have a better start at home in the playoffs.

"Last game, tonight, the first period was not good. I know there are a lot of emotions flying up and down, but we have to be better in the first. That's how you win games."