Oilers’ Neal seeks to solidify role next to McDavid as playoffs draw near

Edmonton Oilers left wing James Neal, right, celebrates with centre Connor McDavid (97) after scoring a goal against the New York Islanders. (Kathy Willens/AP)

CHICAGO — James Neal has heard the noise.

About how he was “done.” About how he’d never get back to 20 goals.

And lately, about how the Edmonton Oilers should sit him down for the rest of the season so he does not reach 21 goals, enacting a clause in his acquisition that will send Edmonton’s third-round draft pick in 2020 to the Calgary Flames.

“Do they want to win?” he asked of those voices. “Or do they want a third-round draft pick?”

Neal has been stuck at 19 goals ever since Jan. 29, when he injured his ankle in a game against the Flames in Edmonton. Buddy Robinson fell on his leg when it was extended as Neal was taking a stride. “He’s a big guy, and he just fell on my ankle. Nothing you could do,” Neal said.

When the Oilers and Flames swapped Neal and Milan Lucic last summer, a condition in the trade stipulated that the Flames would get Edmonton’s third-round pick if Neal scored 21 goals and Lucic — who has seven goals with 14 Flames games to play — scored 10 less than Neal’s total.

“I keep hearing that,” Neal said on Thursday. “And they’re worried about the third rounder?”

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He’s only worried about one thing these days: Solidifying his spot on Connor McDavid’s left side, with 14 games to play before the post-season begins. He returned Tuesday in Dallas on a depth line with Alex Chiasson and Jujhar Khaira, where Neal brought a physical presence to the Oilers, along with a boost in skill.

He’ll move up to play with McDavid and Tyler Ennis tonight against the Chicago Blackhawks in a game between two teams that are each on three-game winning streaks.

“I think I can play whatever game I need to play,” said the 32-year-old. “I think I need to bring parts of that game into my game now, playing with Connor and Enzo. I felt good with the puck last game. I’ll try to get 97 the puck as much as possible, and try to build some chemistry here.”

What we’ve learned about Neal this season is that he’s bigger and plays a more physical game than we’d thought. His game translates to playoff hockey, and he figures the Oilers might as well start playing that way right now.

“Playing up there (on the first line), that’s when you have your most hits,” Neal said. “Right before the break when it was me, Kass (Zack Kassian) and Connor, we were real physical, on the body getting in on the forecheck. Come playoff time, that’s how it’s going to be — tough hockey. You saw that physical game in Dallas, a heavier, playoff-style game.”

Neal’s next goal will be his 20th, a milestone that means a little more this season after the seven-goal debacle that was his campaign in Calgary last year.

“After the way last year went, the way you hear people talk, saying that you’re done after you’ve scored 20 goals 10 years in row,” he mused. “Scored 30, scored 40… Scored goals my whole career, and been consistent at it. I knew I could get back there.”

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It’s kind of funny that Leon Draisaitl has been furnished with two excellent wingers in Ryan Nugent-Hopkins and Kailer Yamamoto — a unit head coach Dave Tippett wouldn’t dare tinker with — meanwhile the best player in the world has had turnstiles on both flanks, as player after player has been given a shot playing next to the Oilers captain.

Andreas Athanasiou was acquired to play with McDavid, but that hasn’t worked out thus far. You would think, with just 14 games to play before playoffs, that Tippett would like to give his captain two consistent wingers that he could build some chemistry with.

“Maybe, yeah. Maybe,” allowed Tippett, who had a long, post-practice chat with McDavid at the Oilers bench Thursday, as the captain left the ice after the morning skate. “You’re looking for a fit. (Among) Top 6 players, there are people who finish, people who make plays around the net… Just people who complement each other, is what we’re looking for. McDavid and Neal have had some pretty good stretches this year. Ennis has come in and given us some good puck play. He can make plays also. Hopefully we can find the right mix.

“The thing I like right now is, it’s a real veteran group up front now. Some parts we can move around a little bit.”

Edmonton opened this road trip by blowing the Nashville Predators out 8-3, on a night where the Oilers scored five third-period goals and McDavid and Draisaitl each had five-point nights. The next night they hunkered down and won a heavy, low-scoring game in Dallas in which they were outplayed five-on-five, prevailing 2-1 in overtime.

A win tonight and they’ll have the rare perfect road trip. Ironically, it was here at the United Center where Edmonton suffered its first road loss of the season, capping a 3-1 road trip on which they had won the first three games.

“There’s an opportunity for us to have a great trip here,” Tippett said. “Two games behind you, if you can play well and find a way to win that third game… Where we are in the standings right now, we need the points just as much as (the Blackhawks) do.”


IN THE CREASE

• Defenceman Oscar Klefbom was not scheduled to play in Chicago, but appears ready to return any time

• Starter Mike Smith took a shot under his blocker and left the morning skate in some pain Thursday, but should be good to play tonight. “He’s going to be fine. Just a little stinger on the finger,” Tippett said.

• After tonight the Oilers play only four of their final 14 games on the road.

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