40James Neal
Photo Credit: Dennis Schneidler-USA TODAY Sports

James Neal: For Real

Just enjoy it. For only the sixth time in franchise history the Edmonton Oilers have started a season 3-0. But never before have they had a start like this.

James Neal is off to a start unlike anything you’ve witnessed in 40 seasons of Oilers hockey.

He has six goals in the first three games after tallying the first four-goal game of his career last night in Long Island.

The most prolific goal scorer in NHL history, Wayne Gretzky, never had six goals in his first three games of a season. Hall of Famer scorers like Jari Kurri, Mark Messier and Glenn Anderson didn’t either. Nor has Connor McDavid.

Add in the fact Neal only scored seven goals all of last season with the Calgary Flames, and we have witnessed a start no one saw coming.

It’s awesome, and it is what makes sports so wonderful — unexpected stories.

The “Real Deal” or the “Unreal Deal” or the “Real Steal” — whatever nickname Oilers fans were using last night to describe Neal’s play — is fitting. Use whichever one makes you smile, because Lord knows Oilersnation hasn’t had much to smile about over the past 13 seasons.

Relish the fact the team is 3-0 for the first time since October 2008. Smile, knowing Neal leads the league in goals with six while McDavid is tied for the league lead in points with eight. Leon Draisaitl is right behind him with seven points and tied for third in league scoring.

The powerplay is tied for fourth and clicking along at 33.3%.

The only thing worse than the Oilers penalty kill the past three seasons was the recent “hot takes” by some media people claiming the Oilers wingers were collectively worse than eight wingers on the waiver wire, yet through three games the Oilers PK is 90.9%.

Oh by the way, among those supposed bad wingers: Neal has six goals, Zack Kassian has three goals and four points, Tomas Jurco is averaging a point-a-game and Joakim Nygard has a goal.

The Oilers overall team speed has noticeably improved this year. Nygard, Jurco, Gaetan Haas, Riley Sheahan, Josh Archibald, Ethan Bear and Joel Persson all skate very well. Neal, who has never been a burner, is moving better after a long summer of training. The Oilers ability to pressure teams and get to loose pucks first is vastly improved from last season.

WHAT NOW?

Does three games make the Oilers a guaranteed playoff contender? Of course not, but they are winning. They are scoring way more. They’re skating better. They’re defending better.

Oilers fans should be basking it this unexpected start. Soak it in. Walk with an extra pep in your step. You’ve had to endure years of ridicule for supporting your team. Hell, you often ridiculed your own organization, and rightly so. The organization was a laughing stock.

Three games doesn’t erase all of that, but instead of worrying about what might come, take a moment to sit back and enjoy some early-season success. We all know you haven’t had much of it for a long time.

Even in the heyday of the Oilers, a 3-0 start was rare.

In 1983 the Oilers won their first seven games.

In 1985 they started 5-0.

They were 4-0 in 2008 and in 1996, 2005 and now 2019 the team started 3-0.

(In 1984 the Oilers went 12-0-3 to start the season, the longest undefeated streak to start a season in NHL history, but they tied their first game.)

Six times in 40 seasons they managed to go 3-0. A win tomorrow and they’d be 4-0 for only the fourth time. This is rare air for Oilersnation, so breathe it in.

JAMES FREAKING NEAL…

I was confident Neal would be a 20-goal man again this year. For the first ten years of his career he scored 21+ goals. Last year’s seven goals with Calgary was an obvious outlier. To suggest otherwise was taking a negative stance. You just had to crunch numbers, and calculate the wear and tear of two Stanley Cup Finals losses and diminished training time, to realize he’d score 20 again.

However, I didn’t expect Neal to snipe six goals in the first three games. He’s on a ridiculous heater.

He has more goals than seven NHL teams.

The San Jose Sharks have five goals in four games.

Minnesota and Ottawa have four goals in two games. Philadelphia has four, albeit in one game.

Chicago has three in one game

Vancouver has two goals in two games.

Arizona has one measly goal in two games.

And four of his goals have come on the powerplay. He has all four of Edmonton’s powerplay goals thus far. Unreal.

Only two teams have more powerplay goals than Neal has. Buffalo has six and Carolina has five. Toronto and Florida have four, which means Neal has more powerplay goals than 26 teams in the league.

We just don’t see stuff like this very often.

For me, today is not the day to analyze and predict how many goals Neal will score this season. Twenty goals seems like a given now. Can he score 30 for the third time in his career? I honestly don’t know, but the possibility doesn’t seem that crazy now.

Can he match his career high in PP goals? Who the heck knows? He scored 18 in 2012, the same season he scored a career-high 40 goals in 80 games as a member of the Pittsburgh Penguins.

The crazy part about Neal’s start is that he’s never been a huge powerplay goal scorer. Only four times in his career has he tallied more than five PP goals in a season. He had nine in the lockout shortened 2013 season (40GP) with the Pens. He had nine in his rookie season with the Dallas Stars. He potted eleven in 59 games with Pittsburgh in 2014 and had 18 goals with them in 2012.

Not surprisingly, his best three seasons on the PP came with the Penguins. Keep in mind Crosby only played 22 games in 2012. Over those three years Neal played 702 minutes on the PP. He played 590 with Chris Kunitz, 532 with Malkin, 424 with Crosby and 360 with Kris Letang. He produced with everyone.

Over that three-year span from 2012-2014, only Alex Ovechkin (53 PP goals in 897 PP TOI) had more goals than Neal’s 38. His 71 PP points were fifth in the NHL over that span.

In Edmonton, he is now on a powerplay with McDavid and Draisaitl, the closest comparison the league has to Malkin and Crosby. And he has four goals in only two games, because Alex Chiasson was on the first PP unit for game one. I’m pretty sure Chiasson will understand why, when he returns to the lineup, he won’t be going back on the top unit.

When Chiasson went out with the flu, Neal made the most of his opportunity. That’s what you want to see from every player. As Dave Tippett said to Ethan Bear when Joel Persson went down in preseason, “Knock, Knock.” Neal not only answered the door, he kicked it in and shredded the door jams.

Draisaitl led the Oilers with 16 powerplay goals last season. He had five in the first three months, and then tallied 11 from January 1st to the end of the season. Can Neal match that? Can he surpass it?

I don’t know, but I’m much more intrigued to see the possibilities now than I was at the start of the season.

Neal’s start grabs your attention, and for Oilers fans it should make you smile. Don’t worry about the rest of the season, just celebrate the fact your team is 3-0 and they have been incredibly entertaining to watch.

You’ve endured a lot of losing, so enjoy the wins, especially when they come in the form of something no Oilers player had done before.

Six goals in the first three games of the season. Neal has been a mixture of everything between the Real Deal, the Unreal Deal and the Real Steal.

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