Flames’ James Neal’s growing pains continue in loss to Predators

Zac Rinaldo scored the go-ahead goal for the Nashville Predators in their 5-3 win over the Calgary Flames.

It was a side of James Neal the fans in Calgary had yet to see.

Feisty, engaged and part of a line generating significant scoring chances when needed most.

And with eight minutes left in a one-goal game, it appeared he’d all but drawn his team even with a world-class pass Sam Bennett simply needed to redirect into an open cage.

Somehow he steered it through the crease and wide on the far side, as per the type of luck Bennett seems to have had for three years now.

“I’m going to have some nightmares about that one,” said Bennett.

“I missed, but that’s the way it goes. It’s tough. You can replay it as much as you want in your head but it’s not going to change anything.”

Changing things up is exactly what Neal is hell-bent on doing these days as the Flames’ big free-agent signing has one goal and a helper in seven outings.

Languishing on a third line that has seen him playing with different linemates virtually every night, things are a world away from how he started last year when he scored the game-winner the first three games in Vegas Golden Knights history.

He’s been saying all the right things, including an admission he needs to shoot more.

On Friday, against his old Nashville teammates, the 31-year-old seemed destined to finally be more of an impact player.

Eric Francis on James Neal: 'You don't pay a guy that much to be on the third line'
October 19 2018

Shoving matches after the whistle with several ex-teammates, including Miikka Salomaki, demonstrated a slice of the fire he is being paid $5.75 million the next five years to ignite.

However, his aggression backfired midway through a 2-2 game when his stick hit Salomaki in the face, drawing a double-minor and so much blood it appeared to be the reason Neal needed to exchange his stick.

Kevin Fiala made Neal and the Flames pay with a power-play goal as part of an entertaining game eventually won 5-3 by the Predators.

However, for the balance of the game Bennett and Neal’s centre was upgraded from Mark Jankowski to Derek Ryan to form a trio that was the squad’s most dangerous the final 30 minutes.

Bennett tied the game early in the third with a nifty deke around Pekka Rinne following a world-class pass by Ryan.

A rare Zac Rinaldo snipe at the six-minute mark of the third put the visitors up 4-3 and prompted a strong response from the Flames.

With 2:40 left Neal redirected great pass by T.J. Brodie in tight that was kicked out by Juuse Saros as part of a brilliant nine-save effort in almost 11 minutes of relief for Rinne. The defending Vezina Trophy winner pulled himself due to an apparent injury suffered in a collision with Fiala.

“We had a chance to win in the third – we tied it up and then a tough bounce,” said Neal of Bennett’s misfire.

“I felt good tonight – I thought our line was generating good chances. Sam’s game has been good. He continues to get better every night. He’s on pucks, he’s making good plays and I’m sure he’d like to have that one back. He got a great goal and I thought we were all over it.”

Was Neal showing his frustration early on with several shoving matches, or was he simply trying to rev up his team?

“It’s not nothing really – just from a slash earlier I was kind of upset,” said Neal, who has scored a minimum of 21 goals each of his 10 years in the NHL.

“I felt I was engaged in the game and looking to get a big goal there. Had some decent chances there, but at the end of the day, myself I’ve got to find a goal.”

His four shots were a positive sign, as was the fact he was one of the most involved, engaged players for the Flames.

The Flames need to see more of that or the task of trying to work his way onto the top line won’t get any more realistic.

Right now the gig alongside Johnny Gaudreau and Sean Monahan is Elias Lindholm’s, not just because he scored his team-leading fifth goal Friday, but because he can also spell off Monahan in the faceoff circle.

The second unit – Calgary’s 3M Line – is reserved for checkers.

So, third-line duty is likely Neal’s lot in life for the foreseeable future.

That said, it’s a long season and you can bet there will be times he’s moved up.

Right now he’s on the second power-play unit too.

“It’s tough to feel good after a loss but I thought our line generated a lot of chances,” said Bennett.

“They’re both good players. They’re so smart with the puck and we had a lot of good shifts controlling the puck down low and working the cycle, but we’ve got to do a better job getting more pucks to the net.”

Not across them.

Neal’s growing pains continue.

When submitting content, please abide by our submission guidelines, and avoid posting profanity, personal attacks or harassment. Should you violate our submissions guidelines, we reserve the right to remove your comments and block your account. Sportsnet reserves the right to close a story’s comment section at any time.