Golden Knights veteran forward James Neal turns into a kid this time of year.
For the eighth straight season, Neal is playing hockey in mid-April and chasing a championship. Last year, he was part of a Nashville Predators team that made it all the way to the Stanley Cup Final before losing to Pittsburgh in six games.
This year, he’s a lead player of an amazing success story that has been the Knights, an expansion team that made the playoffs.
“I’m really excited,” Neal said. “We’ve worked all year to put ourselves in this position, especially to have home-ice advantage. This city is going to be pretty crazy so I’m looking forward to it.”
Neal has appeared in 80 playoff games, the most of any Knights skater. (Goaltender Marc-Andre Fleury has played in 115 playoff games.)
He has 25 goals and 19 assists in the postseason and has earned the nickname “Big Game James” for his playoff exploits. Two years ago, he scored the game-winning goal for the Predators to force a Game 7 against Anaheim in the first round. Last year, he scored six times in the 22 games the Predators played in reaching the Cup final.
He played last year’s Western Conference finals and the Stanley Cup Final with a broken hand, so toughness is not an issue.
“He scores big goals,” Knights coach Gerard Gallant said of Neal, who was sixth on the team in scoring with 25 goals, 19 assists and 44 points despite missing 11 games with various injuries and illnesses. “He was that way at the beginning of the season for us. He’s a big part of what we do, and he’ll be an important player for us in the playoffs, no question.”
Neal said it’s every player’s goal to play his best hockey come playoff time.
“If you want to be a top player in this league you want to play in those big games and score big goals at the right time,” he said. “I feel like I play my best hockey at this time of the year, and I’m excited to play with this group.”
Neal saw firsthand how Nashville got behind the Predators during their Stanley Cup run last spring, and he expects a similar scene to unfold in Las Vegas.
“I think it’s a unique situation,” he said. “In terms of our building, being right there on the Strip, I think it’s going to be an amazing atmosphere. People are going to come down and enjoy it.
“We should be ready to go. We’ve been a consistent team all year to get to this point and give ourselves a chance to start at home. Everyone’s excited to get going, and we’re ready to roll.”