Nov 25, 2013; Boston, MA, USA; Pittsburgh Penguins left wing James Neal (18) celebrates his third period goal with teammate defenseman Matt Niskanen (2) during their 4-3 overtime loss to the Boston Bruins at TD Garden. Mandatory Credit: Winslow Townson-USA TODAY Sports

Pittsburgh Penguins Gameday Skate: James Neal, Matt Niskanen Impactful Since Arriving

Just about three years ago, the Pittsburgh Penguins were in desperate need of offense.

That’s strange to think about now, considering the Pens’ status as one of the NHL’s most potent teams over the past three seasons, but the second half of 2010-11 was a completely different story.

As you may remember, Sidney Crosby (concussion) and Evgeni Malkin (torn knee ligaments) both sustained serious injuries in January 2011, leaving Jordan Staal, Chris Kunitz and Tyler Kennedy as the Penguins’ primary weapons up front. No offense to them, but Pittsburgh was forced to play much more conservative in the latter stages of that season, relying on defense and goaltending to keep them in games.

Realizing that additional scoring punch was needed even with their new approach, Penguins general manager Ray Shero orchestrated a pair of trades to bolster the attack.

One of those moves brought Alex Kovalev back to Pittsburgh for a second stint in a Penguins sweater. At 37 years old, “Kovi” scored nine points (3g, 6a) in 27 games, combined regular season and playoffs, but memorably found himself on the bench in the closing minutes of a Game 7 loss to Tampa Bay in the first round.

The other deal sent defenseman Alex Goligoski to Dallas for winger James Neal and blueliner Matt Niskanen. The Stars’ ownership was seeking to cut payroll, so Shero stepped in to make a trade that has provided major value and should continue to do so for the next several years.

Neal actually started his Penguins career in a terrible scoring slump, netting only one goal in 20 regular season games after arriving at the trade deadline. He scored the game-winning overtime goal in Game 4 against the Lightning, but Neal didn’t become the cold-blooded gunner we now know him as until the 2011-12 season.

Since October 2011, Neal has played 150 regular-season games for the Pens, netting 78 goals over that span. He buried 40 on Malkin’s wing in 2011-12 and the duo have proven a tremendous match ever since.

Niskanen took a little longer to find his niche in Pittsburgh, but the 27-year-old has been at his most valuable this season, keeping an oft-depleted blueline cohesive while playing upwards of 20 minutes a game. Through both traditional stats (7g, 23a, league-leading +29 rating) and possession-based metrics (53.4 percent Corsi, 66.7 percent goals-for rate), Niskanen has established himself as an important piece of the defensive corps.

Goligoski has been fair to good in parts of four seasons in Dallas – and he’s playing a career-high 23:57 on average – but his departure remains one of the defining decisions of Shero’s tenure with the Penguins. Yes, he took advantage of a tough situation for Stars ownership, but no other GM was able to come up with a timely offer like his.

Tonight’s Game: Penguins (36-13-2, 74 points – 1st Metropolitan) at Stars (23-20-8, 54 points – 5th Central) at American Airlines Arena. Faceoff is set for 8 p.m. Eastern time, with Root Sports Pittsburgh handling the TV broadcast. 105.9 The X has the radio side, with Mike Lange and Phil Bourque on the call.

Marc-Andre Fleury gets the call as the Pens go for three wins in a row. According to coach Dan Bylsma, veteran winger Andrew Ebbett will play for the first time since returning from the disabled list.

Dallas will attempt to follow up on a 7-1 blowout of Toronto on Thursday, their second straight victory. Stars coach Lindy Ruff will go with Kari Lehtonen in net for the first meeting between these two franchises in nearly two years.

Tags: James Neal Matt Niskanen Pittsburgh Penguins

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