Chris Kunitz’s style, grit perfect for Penguins in playoffs



NEW YORK — Chris Kunitz isn’t the Penguins’ leading goal-scorer in these playoffs.

Oh, he’s got a couple, but that leaves him three behind Jussi Jokinen.

He isn’t their most prolific shot-blocker, either.

Bylsma, Sutter talk about Penguins' win, next game

Pittsburgh Penguins Brandon Sutter and head coach Dan Bylsma talk to the media from Madison Square Garden in New York. (Video by Peter Diana; 5/6/2014)

And if Kunitz spends most of Game 4 in the Penguins’ second-round playoff series against the New York Rangers at 7:38 P.M. today at Madison Square Garden working alongside Sidney Crosby and Evgeni Malkin, he surely will have the least name-recognition of anyone on that line.

To say nothing of the lowest salary.

But even though some statistics — his team-leading 29 hits, for example — provide a bit of insight on Kunitz’s game, he does not play one that is especially easy to paint by numbers.

A lot of players are willing to venture into the high-contact areas along the boards, in the corners and in front of the net, but Kunitz likely could have his mail delivered there.

He is equal parts fearless and ferocious, absorbing and delivering punishment pretty much every time he steps onto the ice, especially at this time of the year, when games come in best-of-seven bunches.

“He is,” assistant coach Tony Granato said, “what the playoffs are.”

A bit dramatic? Perhaps.

That doesn’t mean it isn’t a succinct, insightful assessment of what Kunitz brings to this team.

Circumstances change. So do linemates. The essence of Kunitz’s game does not.

“No matter who plays with him, no matter what time of the game it is, no matter what time of the season it is, I don’t think Chris Kunitz adjusts or changes,” Granato said. “He’s pretty straightforward on how he plays.”

Kunitz has two assists in this series, which the Penguins lead, 2-1, and has had a few glorious opportunities to pad his goals total in the past two games.

He had a short-handed breakaway in the Penguins’ 3-0 Game 2 victory, and an even-strength one the next night. Rangers goalie Henrik Lundqvist stopped both.

Kunitz hardly is the first guy to be frustrated by Lundqvist, and the Penguins went on to win both games, so his inability to capitalize on those chances wasn’t costly for his team. That doesn’t mean that being denied didn’t sting a bit because Kunitz, like just about every other forward and defenseman in the game, enjoys scoring goals.

Quite a bit.

“It always makes you feel good, that’s for sure,” he said.

Kunitz, though, is not a one-dimensional player, a guy capable of doing little more than taking up space on the bench if he’s not scoring goals.

“He’s a grinding, two-way, hard-to-play-against, go-to-the-net, solid player,” said Granato who, it should be noted, does not double as Kunitz’s representative in contract negotiations. “Physical, intense, gritty.”

Thanks to the company he keeps in games, Kunitz generally find himself sharing the ice with the opponent’s top defense pairing and/or checking line. That, he figures, is a predictable occupational hazard for anyone laboring on one of the NHL’s most menacing lines.

“You can’t control what they’re going to do, or how they’re going to play,” Kunitz said. “You have to make sure you go out and do your thing.”

A big part of his thing is helping to manufacture goals, even when he doesn’t score them. Or earn an assist, for that matter.

Kunitz creates chaos in front of opposing goalies, setting screens and getting deflections that can lead to follow-up opportunities for others if they don’t go directly into the net.

“You could go through that [opening-round Columbus] series and say there were probably three goals we scored where he didn’t get the goal, but that he was responsible for, from being net-front or recovering pucks,” Granato said.

“There are different ways to measure goals, other than just what’s under the ‘G’ column.”

Which is not a bad synopsis of what the playoffs are all about.


Dave Molinari: Dmolinari@Post-Gazette.com and Twitter @MolinariPG. First Published May 6, 2014 11:40 PM

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