James Neal hasn't lit the lamp for the Pittsburgh Penguins since Jan. 10 and the end of the month marked the third straight time that the sniper scored fewer goals than he had in the month prior—he scored eight times in November, six in December and only three times in January.
The pressure he's putting on himself to find the back of the net at this point is palpable, even through a television screen. Not only is Neal failing to post goals, he's also struggling to get the puck on net at all.
All scorers go through slumps, and the 26-year-old is among the most capable shooters in the NHL. He knows what it takes to put up strong numbers in this league. He said as much to Rob Rossi of The Pittsburgh Tribune-Review following the Penguins' 3-1 loss to the Phoenix Coyotes on Saturday:
You just need to go back to getting the puck in, maybe being a little bit more physical and maybe going to different areas. When you're playing at the top of your game and feeling good each night, sometimes you can get a little complacent — and then when you start not playing well, it's more noticeable.
You can accuse Neal of being cold right now, but you certainly can't say that he's not supremely aware of his own game. Going to different areas? Maybe he's onto something there.
At this point, the 2011-12 season is Neal's golden standard. He scored 40 goals on 329 shots and was the fourth-most lethal shooter in the league. He trailed only Steven Stamkos, Evgeni Malkin and Marian Gaborik in scoring that year. What was he doing differently in that season?
According to SportingCharts.com, Neal scored all but two of his 40 goals while in the space between the top of the circles and the crease. He was especially lethal when firing while below the faceoff dots—nearly 75 percent of his goals came on shots that occurred in that area.
That trend is very much alive in the 2013-14 season. 13 of Neal's 17 tallies have come in that same space.
Not surprisingly, his "danger zone" is below the red dots and closer to the net. That isn't a revelation in and of itself as nearly every player is going to be more threatening from the slot, but it's important because of where Neal has been shooting from during his drought.
During his eight game slump, he's been shooting from about five feet further back than average, and he's been missing the net more often as well.
Dating back to Jan. 11, Neal has almost exclusively been shooting from outside of his red zone while at even strength. He's only taken three shots on goal from inside the faceoff dots—or from the area where he scores almost all of his goals. Lately, everything else has been on the peripheral.
That's 14 distance shots versus three in close during the scoring slump.
So when Neal says that "maybe going to different areas" is key to getting back on the scoreboard, he's dead on. For him to return to his high-scoring ways, getting in closer to the net is absolutely critical.
Out of 13 Penguins forwards that have appeared in at least 20 games, Neal's average distance from the net is the third farthest away according to BehindTheNet.ca. Only Craig Adams and Jussi Jokinen tend to shoot from further out than Neal, who is about 33.7 feet away from the net on average this year.
Also worth noting is that Neal leads Pittsburgh in missed shots on the season. That's not too shocking since he is one of the team's go-to trigger-men, but consider that Malkin has missed the net 12 less times than Neal despite having 10 more games played on the year.
The positive news for Neal and the Penguins is that this problem is fixable. He's been more noticeable in the physical aspects of the game over the last week or so, which could indicate more willingness to get back to the dirty areas to score goals.
It might take him another few games to snap out of this little slump, but he seems to be aware of what the problem is based on his postgame comments in Phoenix. Once Neal starts firing from a few feet closer to the net (especially from the right side), that's when he'll be back on track.
When he starts posting up inside of the dots, the goals will start to pile up again.
There's no reason to panic about Neal and his game. The playoffs are about 10 weeks away and he's still on pace for yet another 30-goal season. Still, he's not scoring the way he ought to be right now and the solution is a simple one: shoot, and shoot from inside the dots.
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