Sports

Preds battle Pens in Neal's return to Pittsburgh

(SportsNetwork.com) - James Neal can't worry a whole lot about his return trip to Pittsburgh, not with Nashville struggling ahead of a matchup with a tough opponent.

Neal and the Predators hope to snap their near five-year losing streak to the Penguins on Sunday afternoon.

The 27-year-old Neal will play in Pittsburgh for the first time since the Penguins traded him to Nashville in a draft day deal on June 27 in exchange for forwards Patric Hornqvist and Nick Spaling. Neal had spent three-plus seasons with the Pens after they acquired him from the Dallas Stars ahead of the 2010-11 trade deadline.

Neal scored 40 goals in 80 games with Pittsburgh in 2011-12 and has potted 16 this season for Nashville. That is second on the club behind only Filip Forsberg's 17.

While Neal makes a return trip to Pittsburgh, it will make the second time he has faced the Pens since the trade. He went pointless in a 3-0 loss to visiting Pittsburgh on Oct. 25.

"I'm not too worried about it or thinking about it too much," Neal told Nashville's website on returning to Pittsburgh. "I think playing (the Penguins in October) in Nashville kind of washed that away and I really haven't looked back. We've been having great success here, and it's really all I'm focused on."

That loss to the Penguins was the fifth in a row in this series for the Predators, who have not beaten Pittsburgh since Feb. 14, 2010.

While Nashville has had success this season, it has also lost four of its past five games to tighten things up in the Central Division. The Preds lead the St. Louis Blues by two points for first place in the standings.

The Predators were blanked 3-0 by Semyon Varlamov and the Colorado Avalanche on Friday. Nashville had lost a 5-4 shootout the previous night versus the Blues after having topped the Avs in overtime on Tuesday.

Marek Mazanec made his first start of the season and posted 25 saves.

"We had our opportunities tonight," said Mazanec. "It was good to get the start, but it would have been better to get the win."

With Pekka Rinne out with injury, Carter Hutton figures to get the call today and it would be his first start versus the Penguins. He has faced them once before in relief, stopping all eight shots fired his way.

The Penguins are trying to work out of their own slump, winning for just the second time in seven games with a 2-1 overtime decision versus New Jersey on Friday.

Pittsburgh seemed in danger of getting shut out for a second game in a row, but Chris Kunitz scored a power-play goal with 3:11 remaining in regulation and defenseman Simon Despres won it with 2:39 on the clock in overtime.

Marc-Andre Fleury needed to make only 13 saves in the win.

"Our energy on the bench was high and our attitude was 'don't get down, keep going,'" said Kunitz. "It may be one of our best efforts all year of playing that 60-minute game.

Penguins defenseman Christian Ehrhoff did not play due to a head injury suffered on a hit versus Washington in Wednesday's 4-0 loss. Center Evgeni Malkin, meanwhile, missed his fourth game in a row with a lower-body injury.

Malkin was able to practice on Saturday for the first time since the All-Star break, but will sit out again today.

"I thought he looked really good out there today," Pens head coach Mike Johnston said on his team's website. "So he's getting really close, he's ahead of schedule so we're excited about that for sure.

"The first thing was to get him into a regular practice. You saw at the end of practice today, he took some physical play so he got bumped around a little bit, took that. Get a skate in tomorrow. He won't play tomorrow."

The Penguins are second in the Metropolitan Division with 64 points, one behind the front-running New York Islanders and four up on both the New York Rangers and Capitals.

Fleury is 6-2-1 with a 1.72 goals against average and .932 save percentage in nine career meetings with the Preds, all but one of those starts. He made 25 saves to blank Nashville in October.