UNIONDALE — James “The Real Deal” Neal has become “The Real Steal.”
Lifted from Calgary in exchange for lumbering Milan Lucic, Neal has stormed out of the gates in record-setting fashion in Edmonton, scoring four times in a 5-2 Oilers win Tuesday night on Long Island.
He now has six goals in Edmonton’s first three games, all regulation victories. No one in Oilers history — not Wayne Gretzky, not Jari Kurri, not Mark Messier or Glenn Anderson — ever had six goals after three games.
Truly, we thought those kinds of team record were…
“Safe?” asked centre Ryan Nugent-Hopkins.
Neal had seven goals all of last season, causing the Flames to unload him in a swap of what were perceived to be two bad contracts. At this rate, only one of those contracts might be poor value.
“Well,” Neal smiled,” I’ve scored goals my whole career. I put pressure on myself to score goals, I want that pressure, and last year was a tough year. I wanted a chance to prove myself. I came here, and had people who believed I could bounce back, put a good season together, and help a team get to the playoffs.
“It feels good to have that confidence in me.”
With the New York Islanders up 1-0 on a shorthanded goal, Neal sniped one from the top of the circle, then gave the Oilers a first intermission lead when he slammed one home from the edge of the crease.
He completed the natural hat trick by finishing a lovely passing play from Connor McDavid, to Leon Draisaitl, to Neal at the top of the crease. Neal would score his fourth of the night from a sharp angle in the third period, a pure shooter just letting looser ‘cause he’s in the groove.
“It feels good, for sure,” said Neal, whose six goals match Lucic’s production from the entire 2018-19 season. “With all the change here — management, Ken Holland coming in, then Tipp (coach Dave Tippett) coming in — I think things are changing around here. We have guys in here, right from the bottom to the top, who want to contend to win a Stanley Cup. Right from Day 1 it was easy to fit in. It felt comfortable here.”
McDavid had a three-point night, and has seven points in his last two games.
How long did it take Neal to score his sixth goal last season for the Flames? How about March 29?
Here are a few other nuggets from a special night in the old Nassau Coliseum:
• Neal became the first Oilers player to score four goals in a road game since Alexander Selivanov on Nov 14, 1999 at Chicago.
• The first player in Oilers history to score six goals in his first three games with the team — regardless if it began the season or if it occurred midway thru a campaign.
• It was Neal’s first hat trick since March 14, 2016 — which he scored as a Nashville Predator against the Oilers. “In Rexall,” chuckled Neal, who had eight shots on goal, and 11 shot attempts in total.
“I’ll give him credit,” said Tippett. “He’s come in here and been a really energized player. He’s helped our group, not just scoring some goals, but he’s really helped our group with giving us some juice in the locker room.”
“We know he’s a goal scorer. We know he can put the puck in the net,” Nugent-Hopkins said. “It’s great for him to get the confidence going … and he really set our team up for success tonight. After last year, just talking to him, he came in very focused.”
There is a third-round pick in the balance, as a sweetener in a trade that saw the Flames take on a Lucic contract that is much more difficult of the two to buy out than Neal’s. Calgary gets the Oilers’ third-round pick in the 2020 draft if Neal reaches 21 goals this season, and Lucic ends up with 10 or fewer goals than Neal.
At this point, with Lucic managing just a single shot on goal through Calgary’s first two games, the Flames can begin scouting on the assumption they will receive that pick.
“I met with him in August,” Tippett said of Neal. “I flew out to Toronto, and he was in a really good space. He came into camp, worked hard, really gelled with his teammates. You see him practice and play and you know he’s capable of scoring, but I don’t think anybody envisioned a start like this.”
For Neal, or the Oilers, who are 3-0 with a game in Newark against the Devils on Thursday.
“Tonight was by far our best game,” said Nugent-Hopkins. “The first two games we showed flashes of tonight’s game, but didn’t maintain it. Tonight was a better full 60.”
The Oilers are quicker, deeper, and possess a defensive group that moves the puck better than last season. We’re only three games in, but the way they handled a good Islanders team here in Uniondale, there is reason for optimism in Edmonton this October.
“That’s the best game we’ve played so far,” echoed Tippett, whose Oilers are 3-0 for the first time since 2008. “We managed the puck pretty well most of the time, discipline, power play and penalty kill were good. Even when we were in our zone a little bit I thought we were pretty solid, we weren’t giving up a lot. That’s working toward who we want to be.
“The Islanders are a good, hard working team and I thought we worked right with them. That’s a good sign.”