James Neal scored the game-winner last night as his Nashville Predators took a commanding 3-1 series lead against the St. Louis Blues. Ryan Ellis and Pekka Rinne are having the playoffs of their lives, but the entire Predators team is currently firing on all cylinders.
I predicted the Preds, Edmonton Oilers, Washington Capitals and Ottawa Senators would squeak through to the Conference Finals, but the Anaheim Ducks and New York Rangers' physical play is taking a bigger toll than I thought it would, and the Pittsburgh Penguins just keep battling through their injuries; I won't mind being wrong on 75% of the second round if it means the quality of play will be as intense as those teams have shown.
Neal himself has had a bit of a down year, scoring 23 goals with 18 assist for 41 points in 70 games, after potting 31 goals the previous season. Viktor Arvidsson and Filip Forsberg each scored 31 this year, and Neal's 41 points is just one ahead of a defenseman (P.K. Subban) who played four fewer games than he has.
Perhaps some of the blame can be put on injuries, and part of it might also be Mike Ribeiro's regression from second-line setup man to AHLer; two-time NHL All-Star Neal will probably be back to his usual production rate next year.
It sure looks like he won't be able to add to his international medal count (gold at the 2007 World Juniors and silver at the 2009 World Championships with Team Canada) in the near future, however, with the Preds' playoff aspirations negating World Championship opportunities, and the NHL having decided to back out of the 2018 Olympics.
Here he is on card #GJ-JN from Upper Deck's 2015-16 Series 1 set (and UD Game Jersey sub-set), wearing Nashville's yellow (home) uniform, with a matching game-worn jersey swatch: