Malkin? Crosby? Kunitz can't lose on line decision

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It was a loaded question, to be sure.

Which star center -- Evgeni Malkin or Sidney Crosby -- does Penguns left winger Chris Kunitz prefer or think he's better with?

"Umm ... " Kunitz began.

It's something coach Dan Bylsma will have to determine, perhaps in the next 24 to 48 hours.

Scouting report
  • Matchup: Penguins vs. Florida Panthers, 7:08 p.m. today, Consol Energy Center.
  • TV, radio: Root Sports, WXDX-FM (105.9).
  • Probable goaltenders: Marc-Andre Fleury for Penguins. Jose Theodore for Panthers.
  • Penguins: Have won seven in row and are 2-0 on four-game homestand. ??? Are 0 for 14 on power play since Kris Letang got hurt. ??? Evgeni Malkin is one point shy of 500 for career, James Neal one point shy of 200.
  • Panthers: Are 0-3-3 in past six games in Pittsburgh. ??? Are 5-5-1 in second of back-to-back games. ??? Were 14-0-1 when scoring a power-play goal and not allowing a power-play goal before playing Thursday at Philadelphia.
  • Hidden stat: Before Thursday, Florida had rallied from two-goal deficitdeficits to win three of its previous six>

Kunitz has been playing on a dynamite top line with Malkin and right winger James Neal for a few months, but he has spent the majority of his Penguins career as the left-hand man to Crosby when they both have been healthy. Crosby has missed most of the past 14 months because of a concussion and neck injury.

The team canceled its scheduled practice Thursday, but Crosby apparently skated with forwards Eric Tangradi and Dustin Jeffrey, with contact involved. When he got cleared for contact Tuesday, Crosby said the earliest he would play is Sunday, a day game against Boston at Consol Energy Center.

Bylsma has admitted he has pondered the question of how to arrange his lines when Crosby returns, but he has not divulged any plans, including whether he might reunite Crosby and Kunitz, or keep the Malkin line intact, or move center Jordan Staal to Crosby's wing.

When they have been together, Crosby and Kunitz often have played with Pascal Dupuis on the right side.

Dupuis has been working well lately with Staal and Steve Sullivan. In a 3-2 win Wednesday against Toronto, Dupuis had two goals and an assist, Staal had a goal and an assist and Sullivan had an assist. The members of that line rank fourth, fifth and sixth in team scoring behind the members of Malkin's line.

Not that it's a burden to find a place for Crosby, considered one of the best, if not the best, player in the world. Malkin has fit the same description this season.

Kunitz, 32, is a physical, smart player willing to set up in front of the net. He has 19 goals, 45 points. It's his fourth season with more than 40 points, and he's a goal away from his fourth 20-goal season. His 45 points put him third on the team behind Malkin, who was tied with Tampa Bay's Steve Stamkos atop the NHL scoring list with 81 points before Thursday, and Neal, who ranked 15th with 62 points.

Kunitz has proven capable of helping any good center and did his best to answer the Malkin-or-Crosby question without choosing sides because, after all, what winger wouldn't like the opportunity to play with any center of that caliber?

"I try to keep my game the same, and I think maybe it adapts well to a few different guys," said Kunitz, who was acquired in a trade with Anaheim in February 2009.

"Even playing with [Staal], I try to do the same thing. Hopefully, that's what makes me successful. It's getting pucks to these guys that are really talented and skilled and going to the areas that they draw a lot of people away from."

Still, there are differences playing with Malkin or Crosby. Malkin (270) and Neal (267) rank one-two in the NHL in shots, while Crosby is less rapid-fire while being equally dangerous.

Of the Malkin line, Kunitz said: "We have different elements, a little bit of everything. Neal's a great shooter. [Malkin] is a guy who is unbelievable with the puck and is dominating in so many areas. It makes my job easy. I just have to go to the net, go look for open space, and they draw a lot of attention."

On playing on a line with Crosby, he said: "It was kind of a different type of scoring threat. Playing with Sid when he was playing to his highest level, we'd score a lot on rushes, odd-man chances. We wouldn't necessarily go through and cycle it down around [as with Malkin's line]. It was more of an on-the-rush type of thing.

"It was a little different because Sid brings a lot of head speed through the blue lines. He's coming out of the [defensive] zone so quickly, whereas [Malkin] can get the puck and go through two or three guys -- not that Sid can't; it's just a different type of coming through the neutral zone."

Both centers have speed. Malkin weaves and dances. Crosby blows by opponents.

Kunitz can't say who he will line up with when Crosby returns -- and that doesn't address working Crosby into the top power-play unit, where the forwards now are Malkin, Neal and Kunitz -- but he's sure looking forward to the addition.

"To add a player of Sid's caliber, it makes you a threat to be able to win any game or any playoff round," Kunitz said.

For more on the Penguins, read the Pens Plus blog with Dave Molinari and Shelly Anderson at . Shelly Anderson: and Twitter @pgshelly. First Published March 9, 2012 5:00 AM


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