DALLAS — Six minutes and forty-nine seconds. That’s all it took for James Neal to turn a 1-0 deficit into a 2-1 lead, a score that would stand at the final buzzer.
How did we get to this point? As of two days ago, Neal was listed on the injured reserve, ostensibly still recovering from late July hand surgery. He had not played in a single preseason game this year, and according to Neal, did not even touch the puck until this week.
“I didn’t feel like I was handling it that well, but I was just trying to capitalize on the opportunities you get,” Neal said.
Well, that’s one way of putting it. The 30-year-old winger may have said he was still a bit rusty, but his results told another story. Neal credited his ability to jump back into a game after a long layoff to his offseason workout regimen.
“I was doing everything I could in the gym to be ready to go,” said Neal. “You have confidence in your game, and your hands and legs come back if you put the work in.”
Still, getting the body back in shape is one thing, but developing chemistry with two players you’ve never shared the ice with before is nothing short of stunning. Neal’s line, centered by Cody Eakin and flanked by David Perron, was by far Vegas’ best group, and the only one to outshoot the Dallas Stars at even-strength.
While Neal’s first tally, a snap shot that deflected off a Star — either Radek Faksa or John Klingberg — caused a huge momentum shift, it was his second goal that silenced the capacity crowd at American Airlines Center. Neal took a perfectly threaded feed from Eakin and flicked a shot from his knees over a sprawled-out Kari Lehtonen and into the roof of the net. You’d have to see it to believe it:
Said Neal, “I did everything I could to put it on net. I saw Kari [Lehtonen] was down, he might have thought I didn’t have control, so I just tried to get it up.”
Neal would have been the game’s first star had it not been for Marc-Andre Fleury’s electrifying performance in net. Dallas’ Alexander Radulov picked up the second star despite zero points and four penalty minutes.
Neal is certainly no stranger to goal-scoring, having found twine over 250 times between the regular season and playoffs. Of tonight’s goals, he said, “Those are up there with the best of them.” Heavy words for someone with two playoff overtime goals, a Stanley Cup tally and a 40-goal campaign to his name.
“I know it’s just the first game of the year but just seeing how happy guys were and how excited everyone was to start the season with a new team and a fresh start,” said Neal.
A fresh start for the team as well as the city of Las Vegas, and Neal recognized the gravity of playing a pivotal role in a Golden Knights victory so recently after the tragedy at Mandalay Bay.
“For us, going to see the first responders and some of the victims, we’re just doing everything we can to uplift this city and this community,” Neal said. “This was a good start.
“I’m glad we could give people a smile and something to be happy about.”
An event, as Neal later mentioned, he nearly attended.
“I was at the concert on Friday and had passes to go back on Sunday night, but I got a text I was skating in the morning so I didn’t end up going. Having friends there at the concert and what happened is just sickening. My prayers go out to everyone who affected.”
Neal was, without question, one of the marquee names on the board the night of the expansion draft. While some may expect him to get shipped out at the trade deadline, Neal speaks like a man who is here to stay.
“We’ve got an unbelievable opportunity to do something special, and we’ll do our best to rally behind the city.”
In the Knights’ inaugural contest, they did just that.