Neal’s concussion shuffles Penguins’ top line
Evgeni Malkin hadn’t seen James Neal since the Penguins winger suffered a concussion on a third-period power play Friday against the New York Rangers.
“I hope he comes back soon, before the playoffs,” Malkin said. “I miss him.”
Just as Malkin was getting accustomed to playing with Jarome Iginla on his right wing, he will have to adjust to another new linemate when he looks left.
And this one has more goals and points than Neal.
Malkin centered Iginla and 20-goal scorer Chris Kunitz on Monday at Southpointe. Penguins coach Dan Bylsma said he plans to use that as a first line during their three-game road trip.
“We immediately had some comfort level putting Chris on that line with Geno,” Bylsma said. “That’s what we’ll definitely be seeing going forward, starting in Carolina.”
The Penguins confirmed Neal has a concussion from the hit he absorbed from Rangers defenseman Michael Del Zotto, and he will not travel with the team.
Bylsma said Neal is “feeling a lot better, feeling pretty good,” but called his status day to day. His absence leaves the Penguins without the NHL’s top scorer in Crosby (broken jaw) and No. 8 goal scorer, Neal, who has 18.
“There’s definitely a void on the ice and in the locker room,” Kunitz said of Neal. “He’s a guy that comes around and will chirp guys and make the room kind of light. His ability to create space for himself and shoot the puck is something that this team hasn’t had in a while, a guy who can get open and has really clicked with Geno. So there’s going to be maybe a little bit of a learning curve, but we’ll have to fight through it.”
Malkin said Kunitz has an “unbelievable shot” and expects them to move the puck and work well together.
“He’s smart. He knows what’s going on on the ice,” Malkin said. “You just give him the puck and let him shoot and score.”
On the power play, Bylsma said the Penguins will use Jussi Jokinen in Neal’s spot as the shooter. Otherwise, the unit will stay the same: Kunitz will be at the front of the net with Iginla and defenseman Matt Niskanen at the point and Malkin along the half-wall.
The second power play will feature forwards Beau Bennett, Tyler Kennedy and Brenden Morrow, with either winger Pascal Dupuis and a defenseman such as Mark Eaton or a two-defense pairing, depending on how much time is left in the game.
The key will be how Malkin adapts to playing without Neal, with whom he’s had great chemistry.
“He’s obviously a world-class, top player,” Iginla said of Malkin. “No matter what, whoever you play with, you have tendencies. We all go to different spots and do different things that we all get used to, so I think it does take a little bit of time, no matter who you’re playing with, just to get comfortable and get used to knowing that this guy will be here without having to look over all the time because it’s a pretty quick game. The more it can become second nature, every day feels better and better.”