Goal-less Kunitz remains a Penguins playoff asset

The Penguins have gotten goals from 15 guys in their first 14 games in these playoffs.

Two of them play on the No. 1 line.

So does Chris Kunitz.

The same Chris Kunitz who is coming off a 23-goal regular season and scored three of those in his first three games with the Penguins after being acquired from Anaheim Feb. 26.

But Kunitz's scoring touch deserted him in the waning weeks of the regular season, when he got just one goal during the final 10 games and still has not returned.

In fact, he will enter Game 2 of the Eastern Conference final against Carolina at 7:38 p.m. tomorrow at Mellon Arena with no goals in his past 22 playoff games. That drought stretches back to May 11, 2007, when Kunitz and his Anaheim teammates were surging toward a Stanley Cup.

A slump like that might be enough to earn most first-liners a demotion, but the only thing Kunitz got from his coach yesterday was a compliment.

"He hasn't scored a goal, but he's added to our team in different ways," Dan Bylsma said.

That doesn't mean he wouldn't like to get the odd goal from Kunitz.

When a winger spends quality time with the likes of Sidney Crosby and Bill Guerin, as Kunitz has for nearly three months, it's only reasonable to expect him to knock one in every now and then.

"Chris Kunitz is a guy who will end up on the scoresheet -- should end up on the scoresheet -- occasionally," Bylsma said. "But his role is straight-line, aggressive hockey. [Go to] the front of the net. Physical. If things aren't going well for him, he should always make sure he returns to that foundation."

Kunitz does that pretty much every time he goes over the boards -- he ranks fourth on the team in these playoffs with 37 hits -- and his willingness to labor along the boards and in high-traffic areas has allowed him to accumulate seven assists.

While he recognizes the significance of his slump, he isn't consumed by it. Kunitz doesn't brood or break sticks or kick at puppies who happen to wander past him.

"Obviously, you want to score and help offensively, but I know I have other responsibilities," he said: "Going to the net, recovering pucks, being physical. If I stay on my game, hopefully the chances will come and I can bury one."

Kunitz was one of five Penguins skaters who failed to record a shot on goal in their 3-2 victory in Game 1 against the Hurricanes Monday and has had more than two just once in these playoffs. That's not inconsistent with his regular-season work, however, as he recorded 39 in 20 appearances with the Penguins.

Kunitz, then, isn't likely to shoot his way out of his slump, to throw so many pucks at Carolina's Cam Ward -- or any other goalie -- that the sheer volume guarantees at least one of them will slip through.

Instead, he'll stick to the blue-collar game that got the Penguins interested in him in the first place and hope that a goal will be the inevitable by-product of his efforts.

"You just try to play a good, solid game," he said.

And to resist the temptation to overcompensate in other areas. To not, for example, stray out of position in an effort to throw a particularly big hit.

"That's when you get into more trouble, when you start over-thinking or trying to do too much," Kunitz said. "You just try to stay positive, do the things you do well and hope that it comes back."

Obviously, Kunitz' failure to score hasn't caused irreparable harm to the Penguins. If it had, they would be watching the playoffs on TV rather than playing in them.

Knowing that the team has survived without getting a goal from him frees Kunitz from the stress that might exist if his team's fate was linked inexorably to his goal production.

"I don't think I'm lacking confidence," he said. "It's just one of those things where we keep winning and doing well, it's not something I think about."

Well, he does think about it on occasion, like when he's studying game tape.

"You go over some shifts and things like that, see what chances you've had or things you could do different," he said.

That solution to his slump likely won't be found on a tape, however, but will come in a split-second decision he makes under game conditions.

"It's something you just have to break out of," Kunitz said. "Hopefully, it comes soon."

Dave Molinari can be reached at dmolinari@post-gazette.com First Published May 20, 2009 4:15 AM


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