James Neal still doesn’t have his name on the Stanley Cup. And after coming up short in each of the last two years, the veteran forward can only wonder what it’s like to hold the silver chalice aloft.
He missed last year as a member of the Nashville Predators, who fell to the Pittsburgh Penguins in six games. On Thursday, Neal and the Golden Knights lost 4-3 as the Washington Capitals clinched the first Cup in their 44-year history with a 4-1 series win.
“I’m very proud of this group,” Neal said. “We came together fast. We became a team and did great things this year. “Obviously, it’s very hard to talk about it right now. I think when we get a chance to look back on this after we have some time to think about it, the way we came together.”
The Capitals contained Neal and his linemates, Erik Haula and Alex Tuch, who made up the Knights’ second line. Washington limited the line’s chances, and when they had opportunities, such as the one Neal had early in Game 4 when he had an open net but hit the left post, it only added to the line’s overall frustration.
Neal had two goals in the series. But the Capitals saw to it that he didn’t beat them Thursday. Neal was held to just one shot on goal in 15:23 of ice time in Game 5. Yet, with the Knights holding a 3-2 lead going into the third period, Neal believed he and his teammates were heading back to Washington for Game 6.
“I was 100 percent sure we were going to win the game,” he said. “I thought we had a great start to the third period. Then we had a couple of plays where we didn’t get the puck out of the blue line. The puck found them.
“It’s hard. It’s hockey. You have to get pucks out when you have the chance. When you don’t, it comes back to bite you.”
Despite coming up short, Neal appreciated the support of the fans and the city and how special it was.
“I say ‘Thank you’ for what they did for us all year, how exciting this building was and how great it was to play for them,” he said. “It was unbelievable.”
Neal, who turns 31 in September, is one of three unrestricted free agents that general manager George McPhee will have to deal with in the coming days. (David Perron and defenseman Luca Sbisa are the others.) Neal, who earned $5 million in the final year of his contract, had 25 goals and 19 assists in 71 regular-season games and recorded six goals and five assists in 20 playoff games.
He wouldn’t address his future Thursday. But he said he felt like he and his teammates earned their place in the final. And that is how he compared the Knights’ run to the Predators last year.
“It’s a lot of hard work,” Neal said. “I don’t think you’re given anything. You have to work for everything you get. I think that’s what made our group special. We worked for everything we got this year. We had a great group of guys. So it’s hard right now.
“People said we wouldn’t (win) 20 games this year. And here we are playing for the Stanley Cup. It’s very special, but we came up a little short.”