James Neal scored a hat trick in his first game in nearly a month, powering the Pittsburgh Penguins to an offensive explosion in their final game of the regular season, an 8-3 victory over the Carolina Hurricanes on Saturday night.
The Penguins netted five goals in the third period to thrill the Consol Energy Center congregation and bounce back from a disheveled middle frame that saw the Hurricanes erase a pair of two-goal deficits. With the win, Pittsburgh stopped a two-game losing streak and finished the year at 36-12-0, good for 72 points and first in the Eastern Conference.
Neal’s second and third goals of the night started the Penguins’ onslaught in the third, burying a wrister from the slot on the power play at 1:36 and finishing a 2-on-1 rush with Evgeni Malkin at 4:14. Malkin assisted on two of Neal’s goals and scored one of his own.
Jussi Jokinen scored twice against his former team, including the Penguins’ final goal of the evening. Brenden Morrow and Matt Cooke also beat Hurricanes goalie Justin Peters in the third, and each added an assist to their name as well. Kris Letang, Chris Kunitz, Paul Martin and Jarome Iginla earned a pair of assists apiece.
Goalie Marc-Andre Fleury stopped 27 shots in a game that featured quite a few prime scoring opportunities for Carolina, too. Fleury, playing his first game since becoming a father for the first time, also recorded an assist for the second straight game.
But although there were an array of contributors, the night primarily belonged to Neal. The sharp-shooting power forward played his first game since suffering a concussion against the Rangers on April 5. He finished the season with 21 goals in 40 contests, maintaining the pace of 2011-12, when he scored 40 goals in a full 82-game slate.
With Neal, Malkin, Martin and Letang all recovered from recent injuries, all that’s left is for captain Sidney Crosby to return to the ice from a broken jaw. He has a chance to suit up for Game 1 of the Stanley Cup playoffs, which will likely begin for the Penguins on Wednesday against either Ottawa or the Islanders. Crosby has missed the last 12 games while recuperating.
Although Saturday was Neal’s turn to shine, Malkin scored a spectacular goal, his ninth, to open the scoring midway through the first period. Taking a relay pass from Neal, Malkin glided to the right circle, dragged the puck tight to his body to elude a defender and snapped a shot under the screened Peters.
Malkin and Neal continued to generate great chances in the second period, with the latter connecting for his 19th of the season four minutes into the frame. Kunitz tracked down a loose puck at the Carolina blue line and dished down the boards to Letang, who whipped a pass to Neal in the high slot for a perfect shot to the top-right corner.
The Penguins controlled play for several minutes after Neal made the score 2-0, but a skating lapse by defenseman Douglas Murray allowed Eric Staal a partial breakaway with 7 1/2 minutes left in the second. Although Fleury made the initial save, Kevin Westgarth followed up to poke the rebound into the net. It was the Carolina tough guy’s first goal in 120 games.
Jokinen, whom the Penguins acquired from the Hurricanes at the trade deadline, restored Pittsburgh’s two-goal edge at 16:10, banging in his own rebound after Pascal Dupuis fed him at the right circle. However, Tuomo Ruutu took advantage of a Simon Depres giveaway in front to make it 3-2, and Westgarth benefited from a deflection to tie the game with 2:09 to go before intermission.
Notes: Saturday night marked 278 consecutive sellouts for the Penguins, including all 24 home games in this lockout-shortened regular season…Brenden Morrow belted the Hurricanes’ Justin Faulk with a shoulder-to-face hit in the second period, felling the young defenseman. No penalty was called on the play, despite Faulk’s protests…For the second straight game, brothers Eric, Jordan and Jared Staal all dressed for the Hurricanes.