Most Stars fans started off their evening of happy hockey viewing last night the same way: Why is Brian Sutherby out there with Brad Richards and Eriksson? Where is James Neal??
Fears of injury were allayed when Neal was spotted with Steve Ott and Adam Burish, but the confusion was still there. We've been receiving some interesting tweets and emails about Brad Richards lately (honestly, I have). "What's wrong with Brad Richards?" I was asked last night. He's scored seven points in his last seven games, what's the problem?
Apparently you should have been paying more attention to Mr. Neal. When Eriksson and Richards are succeeding it's easy to throw James in with them and say "they're all doing great" but someone (Neal himself, Crawford, or both) was concerned about it enough to make a change. Neal had a stretch of 9 points in 7 games to start December, but has since gone cold, tallying only a single assist in his last seven games.
We asked Marc Crawford this morning about it and he was coy on exactly when Neal would re-join Richards and Eriksson, but said he definitely will.
"As I said the other day, he probably is own worst critic right now," said Crawford this morning after the skate. "He's probably harder on himself than anybody else. We just want him to simplify his game. I always thought that any time you're not feeling really well with the puck you should pick up your game physically and then you're on the puck and you're on the play."
Coach said he saw some good things from Neal last night in terms of getting pucks out of the zone and creating some space.
"He made a good hit on our third goal and hurried their defenseman ten Fistric kept the puck in and got the goal.. because he created the play with his forecheck. [These are] steps in the right direction for him."
Neal had a goal and an assist the last time the Red Wings were in town on October 14th. Tonight would be a good time for a repeat performance no matter which line he's on, but Crawford says he needs to play a simple, physical game.
"That's what were trying to allow him to do. He's going to move back with Richards and Eriksson whenever I feel he's ready. That's where he's going to play, but right now we're going to help him try to work his way through it."