April 3, 2012; Boston, Massachusetts, USA; Pittsburgh Penguins left wing James Neal (18) takes a shot on goal during the first period against the Boston Bruins at TD Banknorth Garden. Mandatory Credit: Greg M. Cooper-USA TODAY Sports

James Neal the key for new-look Penguins power play

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The Pittsburgh Penguins’ power play is always a story and a topic for criticism among fans, but that unit has a new look only two days into training camp.

Coming off a season in which the power play lived up to expectations, finishing among the top five in the NHL, Penguins coach Dan Bylsma has switched things up by moving James Neal to the left point alongside Kris Letang. Neal and Letang manned the points on the first unit Tuesday, with Sidney Crosby, Evgeni Malkin and Chris Kunitz playing up front.

April 1, 2012; Pittsburgh, PA, USA; Pittsburgh Penguins left wing James Neal (18) at the face-off circle against the Philadelphia Flyers during the second period at the CONSOL Energy Center. The Philadelphia Flyers won 6-4. Mandatory Credit: Charles LeClaire-USA TODAY Sports

Neal led the NHL with 18 power-play goals a season ago, but he’s moving from a forward position to a “rover” role on the back end. He’ll line up at the point, but Neal will have some range to freelance and attack the net if an opportunity presents itself.

“I’m just trying to get familiar with being back there,” said Neal (via Pittsburgh Penguins.com), who has played point on the power play a few times in his hockey career. “It’s obviously different for me. We have some good looks from back there. I just have to find seams and look for shots to shoot from.”

The Pens scored on the power play 19.7 percent of the time a season ago and will have Kunitz in his familiar role in front of the net and rotate Crosby and Malkin on the half-walls so they can be playmakers.

While they will have some scoring ability with Neal and Letang in the back, there is a concern about sacrificing defense for offense.

It is quite the gamble and I would expect the Penguins to give up more than their fair share of shorthanded opportunities, but having the offensive firepower that the Pens will have on their first power play unit should pay off in a big way. That’s especially true given the fact that Neal is a left-handed shot playing that rover position.

If the Penguins power play is going to have a second consecutive big season, it very well could rest on Neal’s shoulders and how quickly he adjusts to playing a new spot when the Pens have the man advantage.

If he does, I wouldn’t be surprised to see him lead the NHL in power-play goals once again.

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Tags: Dan Bylsma James Neal Pittsburgh Penguins

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