By Dejan Kovacevic, PITTSBURGH TRIBUNE-REVIEW
Wednesday, January 18, 2012
As James Neal dashed down the ice Tuesday night for the decisive shootout try, having started from what seemed like another ZIP code, he had a singular thought once he finally sized up Cam Ward in the Carolina crease.
"I usually pick what I'm going to do," Neal recalled. "I usually have something in my head."
He did this time, too, but adjusted at the last second.
"I just kind of switched up at the end."
You'd never have known by its smoothness. The Penguins had been aiming at Ward's glove all night, but Neal neared, then swept across the slot — no pause, no hitch — and buried a forehand flick past the blocker side to seal a 2-1 victory at Consol Energy Center.
That's what goal scorers do. They can have a plan, but ultimately, they simply take what's there.
That led to my own singular thought: This guy's an All-Star.
In every sense except the one that counts.
It's hardly earth-shattering news when the NHL makes any boneheaded decision, but the one by the league's hockey operations department to omit Neal from the All-Star Game on Jan. 29 in Ottawa still staggers the imagination.
There are snubs, and then there's leaving out a player who:
>> Is tied for second in the NHL with 24 goals. (That stayed the same last night, as shootout goals don't count.) Steven Stamkos has 30, and Phil Kessel and Jonathan Toews each have 24. All of those players, plus Marian Gaborik and Milan Michalek — each with 23 — are All-Stars.
>> Leads the league with 192 shots, including a half-dozen more last night. And these aren't blue-line flicks or cheapies from the boards. More often than not, he's powering his way through the circles or slot.
>> Ranks seventh with 64 missed shots. I love this one. It looks like a negative, but any good youth hockey coach preaches to his forwards that, as long as you're getting chances, you're playing well. Add up Neal's shots and misses for a total of 247 attempts, and no one in the NHL generates more.
>> Leads the league with 12 power-play goals.
>> Has yet to net a hat trick, a glowing sign of his consistency accompanied by producing at least a point in 30 of 45 games.
>> Still hasn't benefited from an open net.
>> Is clutch as clutch gets: Eleven of his 24 goals have come in the third period, including six tying or winning goals.
I could do this all day.
Bottom line: This terrific young player, the Penguins' most dangerous winger since Jaromir Jagr and a native of Whitby, Ontario, eminently deserves to be in his nation's capital with the game's best.
It's been nearly a decade since anyone who finished among the NHL's top three in goals was snubbed from that season's All-Star Game. That was in 2002-03, when Milan Hejduk led the league with 50 but inexplicably was left out. The previous year, Bill Guerin and Glen Murray finished tied for second with 41 goals, and both were left out. But there's been nothing of the kind since.
Neal wanted this, too. As the season's gone on, he's spoken in more confident terms about his ability, about how he would handle the additional glare of the spotlight. And he's backed those sentiments with production.
"I know there will be expectations," Neal told me Dec. 23 in Winnipeg, "and I'm OK with that."
I asked Neal yesterday if the snub — rosters were announced last Thursday — was still on his mind.
"I've kind of put that behind me," he replied. "Really, I'm not thinking about that at all. We've got too many things right here to be focused on."
Is he playing on a level with the announced All-Stars?
"I hope I am. I feel good out there. I'm getting my chances to score every night, shooting the puck, and it's so great to be part of a team like this."
As if on cue, fellow winger Pascal Dupuis, at the next stall, jumped in: "Stay home! Rest up!"
The man had a point: Neal is playing on a fractured foot, one that's probably causing him more pain than one might guess from watching his play of late. Still, there is no lighter version of hockey on this planet than the All-Star Game, and Neal could beg off the tougher aspects of the skills competitions.
Be sure the Penguins would love to see Neal honored that way, should a current selection withdraw. This is a player they'd love to see appreciated, locally and broadly, as a rising star. General manager Ray Shero acknowledges he's done his share of lobbying, but he also recognizes that Phoenix's Radim Vrbata (22 goals) and Philadelphia's Scott Hartnell (20) are in that mix, too.
You'd have to think Neal is atop that list.
If not, you'd have to think that suddenly something has become more important in hockey than scoring goals.