Evgeni Malkin played in his 400th NHL game Saturday and had five points, just another day at the office for the world's finest hockey player. James Neal continued his best season by scoring his 29th goal, a blistering shot off a faceoff win by Malkin that left coach Dan Bylsma raving about Neal's "trigger." Richard Park scored his 100th career goal. Jordan Staal played for the first time after missing 15 games with a knee injury and had a goal and perhaps the game's most significant assist on a goal by Dustin Jeffrey that started the climb out of an early 2-0 hole. The Penguins beat the Winnipeg Jets, 8-5, in a throwback, can't-anyone-here-play-defense? game at Consol Energy Center.
It figures Chris Kunitz would pick this day to have his first four-point game in more than two years.
No matter what he does, the man just can't find the spotlight.
That doesn't mean the Penguins don't appreciate Kunitz's sizable contributions. His linemates, Malkin and Neal, who started the day ranked Nos. 3 and 4 in goals in the NHL, marvel at the dirty work he does. So does Bylsma, who talked of how Kunitz's "speed and physicality" creates space and loose pucks for Malkin and Neal.
"I don't think you measure my game by the number of points I have," Kunitz said. "You measure it by the number of goals our line scores."
I'll buy that.
That means Kunitz has been terrific for the Penguins.
The Kunitz-Malkin-Neal line has been the NHL's best for most of the season.
It was nice to see Kunitz get his 15th goal Saturday, his first in nine games and his first power-play goal in 17. Malkin set him up at the blue line behind the Jets defense with a brilliant pass. Kunitz cruised down right wing and blasted a shot by goaltender Ondrej Pavelec, who, after facing 39 shots, knows what it means to be under siege.
"You've got to capitalize on your opportunities," Kunitz said, shrugging. "I play with a couple of guys who like to shoot the puck."
It also was nice to see Kunitz get three assists, especially the one on Malkin's goal -- No. 30 -- in the second period. You might say he returned the favor to Malkin, finding him behind defenseman Dustin Byfuglien, enabling Malkin to skate in alone on Pavelec, who had zero chance of stopping him. Ken Dryden, at his best, couldn't stop Malkin the way he's going. This was his 15th goal in the past 16 games.
But it was Kunitz's role on the Penguins final goal that best shows his value. He was parked in front of the net, where he usually is on the power play, taking his customary beating from defensemen Johnny Oduya and Mark Stuart. Suddenly, the puck was in his skates as he and seemingly everyone on the ice took turns hacking at it.
"My job is to go to the net," Kunitz said. "It's a tough place to be. You've just got to hold your ground. I was trying to jam the puck free but, at the same time, trying to make sure the goalie couldn't cover it up. [Malkin] and [defenseman Kris Letang] each were able to get a touch on it. [Letang] got it in."
Letang got his second goal of the game and much of the glory, but the play was vintage Kunitz.
His dirty work is not without its benefits. He has been so good at it since he joined the Penguins at the 2009 trade deadline that he has skated almost exclusively with Malkin or Sidney Crosby. A player can go his entire career without playing with even one such talent.
"Obviously, it's been special," Kunitz said. "It's something you look back on when you're done playing. You don't want to get caught up in the moment. If you start thinking about it too much, you lose sight of your role and what you're supposed to be doing. Then, you're not on that line anymore."
Kunitz said Malkin might be a little better than Crosby at "creating on the go, ad-libbing, maybe dancing around a few guys." He said Crosby might have an edge on Malkin using "his speed through the middle to create two-on-ones ...
"But certainly both have great puck-possession skills. They're just special players."
Kunitz is too smart and has been around too long to pick one superstar over the other. There has been speculation Bylsma will put him on a line with Crosby if and when Crosby gets back in the lineup. Kunitz and Pascal Dupuis made magic on Crosby's line last season before Crosby went out for the first time with concussion-like symptoms.
It's hard to imagine Bylsma separating Malkin and Neal. Their chemistry has been amazing.
"Whatever helps our team," Kunitz said. "Wherever I fit in. I just want to try to help the team any way I can."
Bylsma knows what he wants from Kunitz.
"A screen, a net-front presence, a whack-at-the-goalie guy."
Kunitz gives it to him.
The man is invaluable.
Ron Cook: firstname.lastname@example.org . Ron Cook can be heard on the "Vinnie and Cook" show weekdays from 10 a.m. to 2 p.m. on 93.7 The Fan.