Posted November 12, 2011 on AP on Fox
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James Neal is a major reason why the Pittsburgh Penguins are atop the Eastern Conference despite Sidney Crosby's absence. Visiting the struggling Carolina Hurricanes isn't likely to change that, either. Neal looks to continue his impressive start to the season and help the Penguins hand the Hurricanes a fifth straight loss Saturday night. Crosby is trying to return from a concussion that has sidelined him since Jan. 5, but he's already been ruled out until at least Tuesday when Pittsburgh (10-3-3) hosts Colorado. The Penguins are doing just fine without their superstar center, tying Chicago for the most points in the NHL. Neal, the team leader with 16 points, is picking up the scoring slack with 11 goals, one back of league-leader Phil Kessel of Toronto and half way to his total from last season. The left wing had 21 goals with Dallas before getting one with the Penguins following a three-player deal in February. He scored a pair of power-play goals in a 3-1 win over the Stars on Friday, helping the Penguins improve to 7-1-1 in their last nine. "Of course when you play your former team, you want to do well," Neal said. "Especially with them doing so well and coming in here being a top team. It was a test for us and a test for them, and it feels good to be able to come out on top." Neal has three goals in his last three meetings with the Hurricanes (5-8-3). Pittsburgh's Evgeni Malkin, who has scored all four of his goals this season on the road, has 12 goals and 15 assists in 20 meetings with the Hurricanes, including six and three, respectively, in a sweep of the 2009 Eastern Conference finals. Pittsburgh took three of four from Carolina last season, with the teams splitting two meetings at RBC Center. The Hurricanes are mired in a 2-5-2 stretch, getting outscored 18-6 during a four-game losing streak. Carolina last dropped five consecutive games from Nov. 23-30, 2009, and the team showed few signs of being capable of avoiding that in Friday's 5-1 loss to the New York Rangers. The defensive struggles continued as Cam Ward surrendered four third-period goals, the first two coming nine seconds apart midway through the stanza. "It's 3-1, and we probably needed a timeout," coach Paul Maurice said. "I'm very disappointed with our effort. That was the turning point for sure." It's unclear if Maurice will stick with Ward in net since he's lost every game during the current skid behind a 5.02 goals-against average. However, he's 7-2-1 with a 2.07 GAA in 10 regular-season home matchups with Pittsburgh. If Ward is rested, Brian Boucher would get his first start since a 5-1 loss at Philadelphia on Oct. 29. He's 0-2-1 with a 4.14 GAA in four games - three starts. Jeff Skinner, the reigning Calder Trophy winner, has been held without a point for two games after collecting four in the previous three - all at home. The center's six goals and 14 points lead the Hurricanes, but he hasn't managed a point while failing to score on 15 shots in four games against the Penguins.
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