LAS VEGAS — The Golden Knights haven’t wasted any time in making an impact on the NHL. Fans in large part can thank James Neal for that.
Neal has scored the game-winning goal in all three of the Knights’ victories, making them the first team in NHL history to begin their debut season with three straight wins. He’s added his own personal firsts, including scoring the first goal in franchise history last Friday in Dallas and the first power-play goal in franchise history in the team’s emotional home opener Tuesday. He has five goals total on the season.
“You’re going to have your highs, you’re going to have your lows,” he said. “But when you’re scoring, you’re feeling it. You’re in a zone and you gotta do everything you can to keep it going. Tons of emotions coming from our group. Everyone is new, everyone is trying to battle for each other. You can see it in the way we play, you can see it on the bench, you can see the emotion that we’re playing with.”
Much like his team was a question mark heading into its inaugural season, Neal’s status was up in the air ahead of the Knights’ debut. The left wing who came to Las Vegas through the expansion draft missed the preseason because of a broken hand sustained on May 12 in Game 1 of the Western Conference Final against the Anaheim Ducks when he was with Nashville.
“James missed most of training camp from his injury and he’s played great hockey the first three games. He’ll probably make that a habit of missing training camp and skating for a couple of days and coming out and dominating,” Knights coach Gerard Gallant joked. “I’m real happy with the way he’s playing, obviously if the goal-scoring is coming. He’s been great for us and that’s great to see.”
Neal was at a loss for words following last Tuesday’s win when he was informed he had the game-winner in all three games.
“I don’t even know what to say, it’s just a special time for our group and our team and everything that’s happened, it’s just kind of a whirlwind and we’re doing everything we can to play good hockey,” Neal said. “When you’re feeling it, you think you can score on every shot, you just want the chances, you want the puck in the right spots and give yourself a chance to score when you’re shooting it.”
Neal’s most productive season was with the Pittsburgh Penguins in 2011-12, when he scored 40 goals in 80 games. In his last three seasons, all with Nashville, he averaged 25.6 goals per season.
While he’s on a remarkable pace at the beginning of his tenure in Nevada, Neal knows that with scoring streaks, come scoring droughts. So for now it’s simply a matter of taking advantage of the team’s momentum, while feeding off the energy of a city that has come together following the tragic Oct. 1 shooting at an outdoor concert on The Strip.
“For our team, for the city, (we’re) playing for the victims and everyone affected,” Neal said. “I think every guy in this dressing room is doing that. I’m proud of all our guys and we’ll continue to do everything we can to uplift the city and be able to be a big part of it.”