LAS VEGAS – It is an exaggeration to say James Neal waited seven years to make the pass that helped the Vegas Golden Knights win their first overtime playoff game very late on Friday night. It took him only seven months.
The 30-year-old winger spent all of this season recovering, while playing, from surgery last summer to repair his right hand, which was broken in last year’s playoffs with the Nashville Predators.
Selected by Vegas in the expansion draft just 10 days after the Predators lost the Stanley Cup Final to the Pittsburgh Penguins, Neal spent all of September on the injured list and was unable to play a pre-season game.
Despite not being expected to be ready for the Golden Knights’ first game in the NHL, Neal not only forced his way into the lineup last Oct. 6 but scored the first two goals in franchise history as Vegas beat the Dallas Stars 2-1 in an historic debut.
Neal then scored game-winners in the Golden Knights’ next two games, too. After one week, he had six goals in four games and looked like he’d win the Rocket Richard Trophy.
But Neal, who didn’t even handle the puck in practice until the final week of the pre-season, said it took all season for him to fully regain strength in his right hand, which suffered a setback when he fell on it in February and missed eight games.
"So right now," he said Friday morning when asked when his hand finally felt right. "It’s perfect timing."
Yes, it is. Ninety-five minutes into Friday’s double-overtime game against the Los Angeles Kings, Neal carried the puck across the blue line, veered left to draw defenceman Kevin Gravel a step out of position, then feathered a pass back to his right and into the path of streaking linemate Erik Haula.
Haula beat Kings goalie Jonathan Quick with a forehand move between the pads, then leapt into Neal’s arms as a record, overflow crowd of 18,588 at T-Mobile Arena went wild.
It was the first point of the playoffs for Neal, who scored only once in his final 12 regular-season games after returning to the Vegas lineup on March 16. But he had 11 shots on goal on Friday. In 95:23, the entire Kings team had 30.
A couple of his shots were weak changeups, perhaps an indication Neal’s top hand still betrays him at times. But he was a force, especially in overtime.
Goalie Marc-Andre Fleury became the first face of the Knights franchise on expansion draft day last June, but Neal, a warrior who has made the playoffs the last seven years, is a big part of Vegas’ heart.
"I feel like I suit the playoffs," Neal said before the Knights, up 2-0 on the Kings in their first-round series, travelled to Los Angeles for Sunday night’s Game 3. "I can play physical, I can score, you can play on the edge a little bit more. You’re going to play heavy teams, going to play fast teams. You have to be able to play all kinds of games.
"For us, we need to stay in the moment. It’s easy to get overwhelmed with what’s going on and how this city has taken over our club."
Neal said before the series began that this season was his most fun in hockey, which is not what he expected when, wounded physically and exhausted emotionally, the Predators left him unprotected last June and the former second-round pick from Whitby, Ont., went to an expansion team from a Stanley Cup finalist.
"I just put everything into Nashville," he said. "I was there for three years and felt I was a part of building something. Finally, we were there. We get to the Cup finals and play Pittsburgh, my old team. It was really hard losing to them. A lot of emotions. And then a few days later, I’m going to Vegas.
"It’s really hard to explain the emotions and the life changes and everything that goes on. But everything happens for a reason. You have to look at the positives. You do yourself no good if you’re looking at the past and being mad at people and asking: ‘Why did they do that?’ You just go and prove yourself. It happened and you have a chance to go and do something great in Vegas. And, man, has it been unbelievable."
In 71 games this season, Neal had 25 goals and 44 points, eclipsing the 20-goal mark for the 10th time in 10 NHL seasons. On an expiring contract, Neal’s potential trade value as a rental was part of the reason the Golden Knights claimed him.
But when the team smashed all expansion records on its way to a 51-win season and helped unite and heal Las Vegans in the wake of the Oct. 1 mass murder of 58 concert-goers, Golden Knights general manager George McPhee changed his playbook and kept Neal and David Perron, another impending unrestricted free agent, at the trade deadline.
"Everyone was writing us off, like we wouldn’t win a game," Neal said. "I knew that wasn’t going to be the case, especially when you have a goalie like (Fleury). I think everyone was here to start a new chapter. Everyone was playing for each other and the coaching staff was a perfect fit for our group.
"I try to bring my game wherever I go and try to make that team better. I want to win. The first thing I said to (Golden Knights owner) Bill Foley when I got here was: ‘We’re going to be competitive and I expect us to be in the playoffs.’"
They expect a lot more now.