Olympic hockey: Penguins linemates Crosby, Kunitz reunited after one-game hiatus

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SOCHI, Russia — As the United States and Canada men’s ice hockey teams stare down a potential Olympic semifinal meeting with only quarterfinal matchups today standing between them, Canada coach Mike Babcock has a problem on his hands that Team USA coach Dan Bylsma can’t really comprehend:

Of all things, the line featuring Sidney Crosby and Chris Kunitz is not scoring enough.

Crosby, Canada’s captain and most gifted player, has no goals and two assists through three games against a sturdy Finland squad and doormats Norway and Austria. Of course, it’s Kunitz who is shouldering most of the blame at home.

Kunitz has no points and was taken off Crosby’s line before the Canadians’ 2-1 victory Sunday against Finland. But Tuesday, Babcock said that Kunitz would be back with Crosby today in the quarterfinals against Latvia, who upended Switzerland, 3-1, and the Canadian fans lit up Twitter airing their grievances.

“Still not scratching Kunitz?” one said.

“I have all the respect in the world for Mike Babcock, but putting Kunitz back with Crosby today is a joke,” another weighed in.

Yes, it’s pretty harsh out there. Many Canadians believe Kunitz, who is ninth in the NHL in goals with 27, only was given a roster spot because he and Crosby play so well together with the Penguins. They can’t fathom that Crosby didn’t dominate the preliminary round of the tournament, and so Kunitz is the easiest target, given that these are his first Olympics.

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“Sid’s played great,” Kunitz said. “We’re trying to play with energy every shift. I think everyone in the world knows who Sid is, and every time they line up against him, they want to play hard on him and make sure he doesn’t score.

“I love playing with him. We have chemistry when we play together in the NHL, but we still have to go out there and execute better and get that momentum going.”

There is a prevailing thought about Crosby that it takes time for his teammates to adjust to the way he sees the game and likewise. For now, it will be Kunitz and Patrice Bergeron sharing his orbit.

Despite all the Canadian hand-wringing, Crosby and company share a 3-0 record (one overtime victory) with Team USA, which will carry a much more positive vibe into its quarterfinal today against Czech Republic, which beat Slovakia, 5-3.

Bylsma, coaching the national team for the first time, believes that the Americans have had the toughest draw of group play, having to beat Russia at home to earn the bye into the quarterfinals. Bylsma made all of the right calls in that one, leaning on T.J. Oshie in the shootout and being proven right on his decision to start Johnathan Quick in net over Ryan Miller, a U.S. hero in 2010 in Vancouver.

Similar to Crosby, Team USA stars Patrick Kane and Zach Parise have not scored goals, but the Americans have been happy to ride the consistent contributions of guys such as Phil Kessel (who leads the Olympics with 7 points), Joe Pavelski and David Backes.

“I looked at a couple different things about our team in these three games,” Bylsma said. “Our response in Game 1, after the Slovaks drew even with the goal at the beginning of the second period. And I think in Game 2 against the Russians, one of the bigger games of many of the players’ lives, being here on Russian soil against that talented team, I thought there was great maturity from our group, blocking shots, laying it on the line.”

Babcock and Bylsma are feeling different levels of pressure to win here, but neither of them can know what it’s like to be Russia coach Zinetula Bilyaletdinov. The Russians beat Norway, 3-0, in the qualification playoffs Tuesday and will face Finland today in the quarterfinals. Penguins forward Evgeni Malkin has one goal and two assists for the Russians through four games is just one more star hoping to finish the Sochi Winter Games with a flourish.

In the other elimination game, Slovenia blanked Austria, 4-0, and will play top-seed Sweden.

As for Kunitz, he will earn the faith of his native fans the moment he helps Crosby get going.

“Now the real games start,” Kunitz said. “It’s almost like Game 7s in the playoffs, that you have to play your best game every single time you’re on the ice. I think it ramps up every single day that you’re here.”

All of North America will be crossing its fingers for smooth skating at noon today when the Canadian and American quarterfinals begin. A potential rematch of the 2010 gold-medal game in Vancouver awaits in the semifinals.

J. Brady McCollough: bmccollough@post-gazette.com and Twitter @BradyMcCollough.

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