He has potted more goals over the past two seasons than any player not named Stamkos or Ovechkin.
Trouble is, the NHL is a what-have-you-done-for-me-lately business and he has none to show for his last five playoff outings.
If the strain is beginning to wear on Pittsburgh Penguins winger James Neal – who has one postseason goal to go along with two assists in seven games – he insists it’s not bothering him unduly.
The strapping Whitby, Ont., product, who scored 21 times in 40 games during the regular season, said he’s simply doing his best to “stay happy and excited, goals and points and that kind of stuff will come. But with the team being successful, everything is all right.”
The playoffs, it is continually repeated, are about coping with adversity in all its forms.
And if the Pens have been tested as a group by the unexpectedly plucky New York Islanders, and now by the upstart Ottawa Senators, it follows that several of the team’s constituent parts would have personal hills to climb.
Neal is just one.
Another player who will need to assert himself more forcefully for the Pens to overcome the Senators: Jarome Iginla.
The winger, who broke out with nine points in six first-round games against the Isles, has been held off the scoresheet since contributing an assist in Game 1 versus the Sens.
Iginla saw action on several forward lines in Game 3, and was bounced around on the power play in the face of an Ottawa penalty kill seemingly designed to neutralize him.
On Tuesday, Penguins head coach Dan Bylsma had him return to the left point during practice, although afterward he was non-committal about keeping him there – the process of finding ways for Iginla to contribute continues apace.
The man himself is just happy to do whatever’s asked of him, even as the top seeds in the East continue to learn how to play with the veterans acquired for a deep playoff run; they have yet to hit their full stride against Ottawa.
The playoffs are also said to be all about incremental improvement in the early rounds, and while the Pens’ upward trajectory was arrested slightly by a double-overtime loss Sunday in a game they largely dominated, no one is overly fretful.
Least of all a 35-year-old who has lived through a run to the Stanley Cup final.
“The more you go through tough spots, the more confidence it gives you as a group, the better you feel and the more used to it you get. In the different mistakes that we’ve made, we’re learning, we want to keep getting better too and keep moving on,” Iginla said, adding that the Pens “expected it to be a battle, and it should be.”
Hockey players don’t typically read much Nietszche – although the Pens might be the exception, given their lineup leads the NHL in Ivy League grads – but to bend his famous aphorism to the NHL post-season context: what does not destroy you in the playoffs, may indeed make you stronger.
The Pens did, after all, hold a two games to one edge over the Islanders before allowing them to knot the series – having already lived through it once this season, there are no immediate plans to let the Senators pull the same trick.
“The Islanders series was a tough series, they pushed us in a lot of different ways, we were at 2-2, people were talking about a lot of pressure and we found a way to win . . . so I think you do draw on those things. You know you’re going to be in tough spots during the playoffs at some point and be under pressure, and it’s probably only going to grow as it goes on,” said Iginla.
Pittsburgh is a team built for a long playoff grind, and has commensurate expectations; there is complete faith that the mistakes that sank the Pens in game three – slipshod work on a power-play that went 0-for-6, a bungled line change and late defensive lapse that allowed a short-handed tying goal – can be easily corrected.
There is also an implicit understanding they can ill afford that sort of largesse again versus an Ottawa team that can’t match Pittsburgh’s high-end talent or overall playoff experience, but does have bottomless reserves of gumption.
Pens captain Sidney Crosby pointed out that while his squad is studded with playoff-tested performers, “[experience] doesn’t guarantee anything.”
Trust the 25-year-old, who has one Cup on his résumé and is desperate to pad the total, to be the one urging his team to focus on the moment.
“You go through things [in the playoffs], but it seems like it never really goes the same way twice, so you just kind of have to prepare for that and appreciate it and make the most of the opportunities you get,” said Crosby.
It’s not clear whether another of the players who came to Pittsburgh seeking a special opportunity will be around to participate in Wednesday’s encounter.
Brenden Morrow, the veteran former Dallas Stars captain who was acquired the same week as Iginla, left practice early on Tuesday and there was no update on his condition.
Whether Morrow plays or not, Bylsma could decide to insert another of the Pens’ trade deadline acquisitions, veteran centre Jussi Jokinen, who has been scratched the last four games.
Yet more evidence that a team searching for the sort of form that leads to championship heights has availed itself of the resources it needs to reach it.