James Neal has been the catalyst for the Golden Knights 3-0-0 start, scoring five goals to start the season.
Neal only has 11 shots on goal this season giving him a 45.4 percent shooting percentage on the year.
What’s been the key to Neal’s hot start? Largely being unaccounted for by opposing teams. His first goal of the season came on a delayed penalty. Maybe it was because it took Vegas about 15 seconds to get Marc-Andre Fluery off the ice and Neal on as an extra skater, but Dallas had no clue Neal was gliding in as an attacking option.
His overtime winner against Arizona came after David Perron danced with the puck, drawing all three Coyotes attention.
Neal just drifted to the side of the net, received the tremendous pass off the boards from Perron and had all the time and space to put home the game-winner.
The side of the net has been one of Neal’s favorite spots this season. Both of his goals in the home opener came from Neal getting to the side of the net and waiting for the puck to find him.
Neal drifts in front of the net and once Brayden McNabb’s shot is stopped, Neal is position to corral the puck and fire to the near-side post, the same place he beat Antti Rannta in overtime one game earlier.
He then broke the Golden Knights power play dry spell by squatting on the other post.
After Reilly Smith handled a puck the puck in his skates and fired it back across ice, all Neal had to do was jam it home.
Neal has put himself in great positions to score. He’s finding openings where he can get time and space to get quality shots on goal from quality passes by his teammates.
He’s also been the benefit of shaky goaltending. Two of his goals against Arizona came from Raanta giving him an opening on the near post.
And his tremendous game winner against Dallas was only possible because Kari Lehtonen went flopping to the ice too early.
Neal, who controls the puck while on one knee, has nearly the entire net to shoot out after Lehtonen took himself out of the play.
While five goals on 11 shots is highly unsustainable, Neal has been a part of the Golden Knights best line.
Perron, Neal and Cody Eakin have been playing as the first line for the Golden Knights and they have been delivering. Through three games, Neal’s Corsi For percentage is 62 percent. Perron and Eakin aren’t far behind at 57.1 percent.
They are the three leaders for the Golden Knights in Corsi and it isn’t close. No other forward is even at 50 percent, and only Nate Schmidt, Luca Sbisa and Deryk Engelland have a Corsi For percentage at or above 50 percent.
Neal has the benefit of being used in offensive situations. He leads the team with 60.6 percent of his zone starts coming in the offensive end. Compare that with the the Golden Knights second line of Reilly Smith, Jonathan Marchessault and Oscar Lindberg, who are all starting starting in the defensive zone 60 percent of the time.
The goals won’t keep flying in at this rate, but Neal will remain one of the Golden Knights most productive players for however long he is in Vegas.
Tyler Bischoff hosts Coaches Corner on AM 720 KDWN Monday through Friday at 6:00 pm.