Pittsburgh Penguins' Chris Kunitz, left, and Sidney Crosby, right, celebrate an empty-net goal by Jordan Staal, center, against the Boston Bruins in the third period of an NHL hockey game in Pittsburgh Sunday, March 15, 2009. The Penguins won 6-4 with Kunitz getting a hat trick.
By Dave Molinari Pittsburgh Post-Gazette
Penguins coaches and management have spent much of the past four seasons seeking linemates to complement Sidney Crosby.
A worthy mission, to be sure, but there likely have been times when those guys wished they were searching for something a bit less elusive.
The lost continent of Atlantis, perhaps. Or maybe the Ark of the Covenant.
But general manager Ray Shero appears to have addressed the issue, at least for now, with the acquisition of Chris Kunitz and Bill Guerin, who have spent most of the past six games on Crosby's wings.
During that time, those three have combined for eight goals and 17 assists.
"We've been able to jell fairly quickly," Crosby said yesterday, "and that's a good sign."
His boss certainly thinks so.
"It's a work in progress, as everything is," interim coach Dan Bylsma said. "But I think I like what I see."
Enough that he'll deploy that unit again when Atlanta visits Mellon Arena at 7:38 p.m. today. And while the current configuration isn't necessarily a long-term solution -- remember, Guerin is 38 years old and will be an unrestricted free agent this summer -- the issue shouldn't be a front-burner concern for the balance of this season.
"I'm pretty happy with it," Bylsma said. "Sid has done a good job of battling and playing in straight lines and attacking, and these guys are gritty players who go to the net, as well as [being] straight-line players."
Marian Hossa remains the best linemate Crosby has had, but with Kunitz and Guerin flanking him, this likely is the best three-man unit he has been part of in the NHL. (Although Crosby did spend a little time with Mario Lemieux and Ziggy Palffy during his rookie season).
Kunitz, brought in from Anaheim, still is getting acclimated to working alongside Crosby, trying to get a feel for where he will go on the ice and what he'll do once he gets there.
"Sid's such a good player that it's tough to ... defensive people don't know where he's going, so it's tough to learn to read off him," Kunitz said.
Guerin, though, said the transition to Crosby's right side has been relatively smooth, likely a reflection of his 1,174 games of NHL experience.
"I don't find it tough to play with him," Guerin said. "I find it great to play with him. I love it.
"He's going to make something happen when he has the puck, and the more he has it on his stick, the better off we are."
Actually, when the puck ends up on Crosby's stick, there's a decent chance it will make its way onto Guerin's within a few seconds. The combination of Crosby's playmaking ability and Guerin's knack for finding the holes in defensive-zone coverages can be lethal for opponents.
"Billy is a big-time scorer, a big-time slot guy," Crosby said. "He finds those open areas. He knows where to go."
Guerin proved that 50 seconds into the Penguins' 6-4 victory against Boston Sunday, when he worked free just above the hash marks and, after taking a feed from Crosby, buried a shot behind Bruins goalie Tim Thomas.
Guerin's goal-scoring ability is an obvious asset for the line. Less obvious, but no less significant, is the stabilizing presence he provides.
"I like the mentality Billy offers," Bylsma said. "He's a veteran, he's patient about the game and knows to continually play the right way to get results, to not get too upset over one period or one shift. Just get back to what the line is trying to do, and what the team is trying to do."
Kunitz has 21 goals, including two in the Boston game, but his greatest value might be his willingness to do blue-collar work, to forecheck and operate along the boards and in other high-traffic areas.
"I go out there and do my role, go in straight lines and hit people and [get] pucks to my linemates," he said. "They brought me in here to do my thing, my game is to go in straight lines, get pucks, help out that way. I don't stray too far or go east-west."
Bylsma characterized Kunitz as "a bulldog," and there's no question his tenacity adds to the line's pedigree. And its potential.
"We've still got some room to improve," Crosby said, "and that's a good sign."
Matchup: Atlanta Thrashers at Penguins, 7:38 p.m. today, Mellon Arena.
Probable goaltenders: Marc-Andre Fleury for Penguins. Kari Lehtonen for Thrashers.
Penguins: Are 3-0 against Thrashers, including 3-1 victory Jan. 6 at Mellon Arena. ... RW Petr Sykora needs one goal for 300 in NHL. ... Have outscored opponents, 12-6, in third period of past six games.
Thrashers: Were on 10-4-1 roll before home game against Washington last night. ... Road power play is fifth-best in NHL, with success rate of 23.2 percent. ... Are 5-7-1 in second game when playing on consecutive days.
Hidden stat: C Evgeni Malkin has scored two or more points in 19 of Penguins' 37 victories.