WINNIPEG - Before he became a full-blown NHL power forward, James Neal made a cameo appearance with the Manitoba Moose.
Sure, it was only a five-game stint during the early stages of the 2008-09 American Hockey League season but Neal remembers those days fondly.
“It was fun when I was here, I remember the building being packed every night and how passionate (the fans) were about their hockey,” said Neal, whose Pittsburgh Penguins took on the Winnipeg Jets on Monday night at MTS Centre. “It’s good to see they got (an NHL) team.”
Were there any on-ice highlights among the four goals and five assists Neal put up in those five games?
“I had a breakaway for a shorthanded goal and I scored (up) high, that’s the one I remember the most,” said Neal, a 24-year-old from Whitby, Ont. “I played in five games and they came within two weeks.”
After his recall to the Dallas Stars in 2008-09, Neal went on to produce 24 goals and 37 points and said farewell to the minors for good.
But last season, after putting up 21 goals and 39 points in 59 games with the Stars, Neal was traded to the Penguins .
“It was everything they say. Your life changes within a phone call. You’re on a plane and you’re in a new city, meeting different teammates. It’s definitely a huge adjustment. Everyone says how crazy it is, but you don’t really know until you experience it,” said Neal, who had one goal and six points in 20 games in the regular season and added a goal and two points in the opening round of the playoffs for the Penguins. “It’s a fresh start for me. I didn’t produce as much as I’d like to after the trade, but this year it’s been fun and I have a good feel for Pittsburgh now and I feel really comfortable. I’ve been shooting the puck well, doing the right things and I’ve been able to find the back of the net.”
With 24, 27 and 22 goals in his first three NHL seasons, Neal is blossoming and his early pace suggests a 30-goal campaign is an inevitability.
“I try to play all aspects and do all of the things to build you up to be a power forward,” said Neal, a second round pick (33rd overall) in the 2005 NHL Entry Draft. “I’m just trying to come in and play the way I know I can play.”
Penguins head coach Dan Bylsma said Neal is doing many of the same things he did after the trade, only this season he’s seeing a reward in terms of production.
“He’s got speed, he’s on the puck, he’s a physical guy, he’s good around the net and has a great shot,” said Bylsma. “If he keeps playing the way he has been, he’ll be a factor.”
Neal entered Monday’s game with five goals and six points in six games.