Pens Forwards Back to Full Health as Neal, Bennett Return

The Pittsburgh Penguins dropped their second consecutive decision Saturday at St. Louis, a 2-1 defensive battle in which they put up a season-low 20 shots, managed to get only one power-play goal past goaltender Jaroslav Halak, and committed a few turnovers and defensive miscues that gave the Blues the edge.

For Pittsburgh, however, the good news from that contest might have outweighed the bad. First, they turned in a hard-fought, physical performance against the Blues, a significant improvement from what head coach Dan Bylsma called a “disjointed” effort in Wednesday’s 5-1 loss to the New York Rangers.

Second, 17 games into the season, the Penguins finally got the opportunity to see their forward lines as they might have envisioned them at the start, as James Neal and Beau Bennett returned from 15- and 11-game absences, respectively.

“It felt good to be back in the lineup,” said Neal, who contributed two shots and a hit to the effort. “I was going day by day seeing how I felt and, after [Saturday’s] morning skate and a few good practices, I felt I was ready to play. Obviously would’ve liked to win, but it felt good to get back in the lineup with the guys.”

“It felt really good,” said Bennett, who pitched in a shot, two hits, a blocked shot and a faceoff win. “We would’ve liked to get the win, but I felt like my legs and my conditioning were a lot better than they were a couple weeks ago, and they’ll only get better going forward.”

More importantly, after an intense contest where neither team gave up much room, both continued to feel good the Monday after their return to game action.

“Actually it felt really good today,” said Bennett, who played 11:03 against the Blues. “Having an off day [Sunday] was great; I wasn’t too sore or anything. Just the normal bumps and bruises of in-game play. It was good; I was pretty happy with how I felt yesterday.”

“I felt better than I thought I would,” said Neal, who logged 17:02 of ice time in his return. “I got those practices under my belt and didn’t have any issues. It’s obviously different going into a game, the intensity and physicality, but I played that full game. Played a little more than I expected, but I felt good.”

Despite being penciled in on the fourth line as a surprise addition to the Penguins’ roster Saturday, Neal immediately returned to his second-line spot alongside center Evgeni Malkin, and there’s likely no player happier to see the former 40-goal scorer return to the lineup. Malkin, a two-time scoring champion, has now gone 10 games without finding the net despite several dominant performances.

“I think we both help each other out,” Neal said. “Whenever one of us isn’t in the lineup, obviously we miss each other, and that’s just normal when you have chemistry with a guy. Geno’s playing hard; he’s doing the right things [and] I know he wants to score more than anybody. Sometimes the puck doesn’t go your way but, as long as you keep going and doing the right things, you [eventually] get the bounces.”

Bylsma said it’s not just Malkin – or captain Sidney Crosby, who has also gone an uncharacteristic seven games without a goal – but the whole team that needs to put together better offensive efforts.

“In terms of scoring goals and getting opportunities to score goals, I think there have been certain areas we can do better,” Bylsma said. “It’s not just the individual; it is the team in those areas – whether it’s being better in the offensive zone as a five-man unit and getting more guys to the net, or if it’s neutral-zone transition and how we execute and manage and support the puck to get better opportunities to have scoring chances.”

For the 21-year-old Bennett, Malkin’s chemistry with Neal and winger Jussi Jokinen slots him into a third-line spot alongside center Brandon Sutter and veteran Matt D’Agostini, who himself recently returned from a preseason injury.

“I knew at the beginning of the year how things were shaping up and who I might play with,” Bennett said. “Suttsy’s a guy I came into the league and played with in my first couple games [last year], and I played with him to end the year in the playoffs, so I know him pretty well, and I think our chemistry will keep getting better.”

Although Bennett doesn’t know D’Agostini well yet, he said he’s finding him to be “not hard to play with at all; he’s very defensively responsible and pretty quick. I think the more we learn and read off each other, we’ll get a lot more chances.”

And the Penguins can only benefit if that line creates opportunities for a more balanced scoring attack, as opponents focus on the top two centered by Crosby and Malkin.

“They’re going to get the hard matchups every game; they’re going to be keying in on those guys,” Bennett said. “So, when they’re getting tight checked and shut down, we need to step up [and] make some plays. Suttsy’s very capable; he’s a really good two-way guy for us. It starts in our D zone and, hopefully, we’ll get chances on the rush and in [the offensive] zone from that.”

If Neal and Bennett didn’t have much of a chance to ease into their returns in a tight, physical contest with the Blues, they’re about to face more of the same – and then some – Wednesday as the Philadelphia Flyers come to town.

It’s the third of four consecutive appearances for the Penguins on NBC Sports’ “Wednesday Night Rivalry,” and a Penguins-Flyers matchup embodies the very definition of the word. The game figures to be even more heated as both teams could use the win – Pittsburgh to turn around last week’s losses, and Philadelphia to climb out from a dismal start to the season.

“It’s always a good rivalry; both teams get up for the game and it’s fun,” Neal said. “No matter which building you’re playing in, it’s energized, it’s exciting. We’ve lost two games here so we need to get going, and they’ve been struggling, too.”

“I think it’s great,” Bennett said of Pittsburgh’s repeated visibility on the national stage. “We just need to have a little better showing than last week [against the Rangers]. Philly’s coming in, [captain Claude] Giroux got his first goal so he’ll be working off that a little bit, and they’re going to play us tough every time. We’ve got to be ready for them.”

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