By Jim Diamond
Seeing his first game action since March 12th due to an upper-body injury that caused him to miss nine games, James Neal stepped back into the lineup for the Nashville Predators Saturday night against the visiting Dallas Stars.
Predators head coach Peter Laviolette reunited Neal with Mike Ribeiro and rookie Filip Forsberg on the team’s top line. That triumvirate has spent a lot of time together this season, and there’s a good chance they will be a unit when the playoffs commence.
Trailing by a goal late in the third, Ribeiro, of course, sent a pass from the high slot over to Neal near the right faceoff dot, where he hammered a one-timer by Stars goaltender Jhonas Enroth to tie the game 3-3 with 1:55 to go.
Neal skated to the right boards near some celebrating fans before his teammates joined him.
“It’s always good for your confidence,” he said. “It felt good to get that one. It was a great play by Ribs to slide it over and I managed to get good wood on it and get it to the net.”
The assist was the 500th of Ribeiro’s NHL career. He wasn’t much in the mood to talk about his personal milestone after the game, but he did like to see how his line progressively got better as the game went along.
“You have to keep playing,” Ribeiro said. “For a goal scorer, even if you are just trying to get back into it, if you score a goal, I think it’s good for his confidence. But obviously the first two periods, I think we could have maybe created more, but for his first game in a while, we’ll (take) that big goal at the end that he got for us.”
Neal had 19:56 of ice time in the game, recording two shots on goal and had another two attempts miss the target.
“The whole team has missed Nealer,” Forsberg said. “He’s a huge part of our team. You saw the shot that he scored on there. That’s the stuff he does on a daily basis.”
Being together with Ribeiro and Forsberg made Neal’s return to game action a good one.
“To be able to slide in and play with Ribs and Flip made things easier,” Neal said.
Laviolette liked what he saw of Neal in the game.
“I thought James looked good,” he said. “He scored a big goal for us late. He was able to contribute offensively. I thought the line was productive.”
With just three games remaining in the regular season, the Neal-Ribeiro-Forsberg line will be relied upon heavily come playoff time, so getting back the chemistry they had together earlier in the season is a priority for them.
“I think we’ve just got to keep working really hard and doing the things that we did, especially in the third period,” Forsberg said. “I think that’s the biggest key for us here in the last three.”