James Neal keen to pass on playoff wisdom to young Flames

Dallas Stars' Ben Lovejoy, right, checks Calgary Flames' James Neal during first period NHL hockey action in Calgary, Wednesday, March 27, 2019. (Jeff McIntosh/CP)

LOS ANGELES – In this case, the shouting from the bench was warranted.

Sam Bennett was in the near corner, trying to get to his feet after a hard hit from 6-foot-5 Kings defenceman Kurtis MacDermid left the Flames forward woozy late Monday night at the Staples Center.

The Flames were none too pleased.

It came several minutes after the two teams exchanged runs at one another, prompting a furious Flames bench to ensure the opposition and the officials knew of their fury.

It’s the type of situation James Neal had spoken to his teammates about before.

Never let ’em get you off your game.

As the Flames approach the playoffs with an otherwise inexperienced post-season roster, Neal has been reiterating the perils of losing focus, being distracted by the wrong things.

The lads tend to listen to a guy with 100 games of spring action under his belt, which may help explain how the Flames moved on from the second period transgression to score four in the third.

(Incidentally, MacDermid and Bennett left the game, but coach Bill Peters insisted his team “dodged a bullet” as Bennett was “fine.”)

“We’re a team that’s very fiery and we like to get on things and get on the refs a little,” said Austin Czarnik, one of many impressionable young Flames looking to soak up knowledge ahead of next week’s playoffs.

“But recently, since (Neal) has been back from injury, I feel like he’s kind of tamed everyone and got everyone to think positively and not get on the refs because at this time of year it’s not going to help our team success.

“When someone is upset, teams know and when certain guys get upset teams are going to just keep going at him. You need to just be focused on the team at hand and not outside factors that can potentially make or break your season in situations like that.

“I feel like that’s something he’s always been good with. He’s never really shown much frustration or anger. He has a cool demeanor when he’s playing. We need that type of leadership on the ice to control our emotions.”

Let the record show, despite his paltry offensive numbers (seven goals, 12 assists) Neal is finding ways to contribute.

In Monday’s 7-2 win over Los Angeles, the former 40-goal scorer extended his point streak to three with a goal, a helper and another solid showing.

It gives hope to the notion Flames fans are clinging to, that Neal’s trying season can be saved by a springtime resurgence.

In the meantime, his teammates insist he’s doing well to contribute in other ways, by way of lessons learned from 100 playoff games and the 31 goals he’s scored in them.

“It’s a whole different game,” said Neal, 31, who has been to the last two Stanley Cup finals with Nashville and Vegas.

“The way you deal with adversity – I think your composure is a huge part of it, not getting frustrated. You’re going to have hard games and guys all over you and players going after you. Guys are finishing their checks no matter how you are.

“You can’t let guys show that they’re bothering you out there – you’ve got to keep a clear mind. It’s hard in a lot of different areas when you’re in the game and you’re emotional and everything happens. But once you go through that, you learn about yourself and how tight you have to play as a team to win and get through stuff like that.”

The Flames have plenty to learn, and Neal is keen to pass on the wisdom he’s gained from playing alongside other playoff stars.

“I’ve had some great leaders over the years help me with that,” said Neal, who has played 764 regular season games with Dallas, Pittsburgh, Nashville, Vegas and Calgary.

“I’ve learned a lot and come a long way and played my best hockey in the playoffs. No one really sat me down and said, ‘this is what’s going to happen.’ We went to battle together as teammates and learned as we went.

“Mike Fisher, Shea Weber, Brad Richards, Brenden Morrow, Sidney Crosby, (Evgeni) Malkin and all these guys I’ve played with helped me out and helped you learn. I think you learn a lot just being in the playoffs and going through different things that happen.”

As Neal is the first to point out, plenty happens.

It’s how you respond to it that matters most, which is why he’s already started reminding players that ref rage is counterproductive and wasted energy.

“That would be the biggest thing I think, the ups and down you’re going to go through,” said Neal, who insists he’s spent plenty of time imparting such wisdom all season long.

“You’re going to go through hard losses and overtime losses and overtime wins at the top and you’ve got to be able to come back to reality and be even keeled the next day and know everything has to be put behind you so you can refocus on the next game.

“All the little plays and the discipline, the game gets amplified up so much. A little penalty here goes a long way so you have to be as disciplined as possible.”

Some things are evident.

Still, having the point hammered home by a man driven to complete a journey he’s fallen agonizingly short of – twice – resonates.

“Right now he’s carrying the right mindset,” said Czarnik.

“He’s been here so much in his career and he’s trying to get the most out of everyone.”

Andrew Mangiapane is another youngster lapping whatever he can from Neal.

“He obviously has that playoff experience and when he says something a lot of guys in the room, including myself, listen and you try to learn,” said Mangiapane.

“When he says not to yell at the refs he’s kind of right.”

It would be even nicer if he continued scoring, as he has two of his last three games.

“I wouldn’t be surprised if he steps up in the playoffs,” said Czarnik.

“He’s a big body and he’s been there and he knows how to score goals and get to the net. I mean, he’s had 20 goal seasons for how many years? Obviously he’s not happy with the year he’s had. It has been frustrating for him. But I think when it comes down to this time, I think he’s going to be a big asset for us.”

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