In their final tune up before Game 1 of the playoffs, the Pittsburgh Penguins (36-12-0, 72 pts) put on a show Saturday night, erupting for five third period goals, en route to an 8-3 win over the Carolina Hurricanes (19-25-4, 42 pts).
James Neal playing for the first time since April 5th, scored 3 goals and 1 assist in a great sign for him going into the playoffs. “It was nice to get out there and get a game in before the playoffs,” Neal said.
Neal wasn’t the only Penguin to have a big night. Evgeni Malkin had a goal and 2 assists, while Jussi Jokinen added 2 goals. Brenden Morrow and Matt Cooke also scored in the win. Marc Andre Fleury had some iffy moments in the second period but stopped 23 saves to end the season with 23 wins.
Neal’s hat trick gives him 21 goals on the season, making it all five NHL seasons he has recorded 20 goals or more. Signed for five more seasons and playing with elite centers in Evgeni Malkin or Sidney Crosby, Neal will continue to be a regular 20+ goal scorer for years to come. Neal again this season was on a 40+ goal pace (82 game season).
“You play some games without the guy and without the shot and he steps right in and you realize how dangerous he is,” Bylsma said of Neal being one of hockey’s most dangerous goal scorers. “I’m not sure it could’ve been a better outing for him.”
The Penguins enter the playoffs with the No. 1 seed and winners in 23 of 27 games. The team will play the Ottawa Senators or New York Islanders in the first round, pending the outcome of tonight’s Bruins – Senators game. A Senators loss to Boston Sunday night and it’s Penguins – Senators in the first round.
The Penguins scored 162 goals this season, leading the league in goals for two straight seasons. The next closest team to the Penguins was the Chicaco Blackhawks who scored 149 goals.
One area the Penguins are improved at compared to last season is defensively where they rank 12th in NHL in giving up 2.48 goals per game. Reasons for that have been personnel and also system changes from the coaching staff. “The team has done an amazing job of winning hockey games, winning through stretches and winning in different ways with different people in the lineup,” Bylsma said.