Penguins winger Chris Kunitz deflects the puck past New York Islanders goalie Jean-Francois Berube Tuesday night at Consol Energy Center.
By Ron Cook / Pittsburgh Post-Gazette
They played together for the better part of eight NHL seasons, often on the Penguins’ top line with Sidney Crosby. Pascal Dupuis always appreciated Chris Kunitz as a teammate. He might appreciate him even more now that he’s retired and watches the games from high above Consol Energy Center ice.
“He just keeps going,” Dupuis said of Kunitz.
This was between the second and third period of the Penguins’ game Tuesday night against the New York Islanders. The Penguins were ahead, 1-0, on a deflection goal by Kunitz in the first period. They didn’t score again but still managed to get a 2-1 shootout win. They moved within three points of the Islanders in the Metropolitan Division.
The win — the Penguins’ third in a row — made for a nice milestone game for Kunitz. It was his 800th NHL game. That is a lot of hockey.
“I’m definitely having fun waking up every day and still getting to hang out with all of the kids,” Kunitz said.
Kunitz might be hanging out, but he’s not hanging on. He’s 36, but he’s still contributing enough to play on the top line with Crosby. He’s not the offensive player he was a few years ago when he, Crosby and Dupuis were the NHL’s best line, but he’s not embarrassing himself or slowing down Crosby. His goal gave him nine goals and 21 points in his past 26 games. Crosby, who got the second assist on Kunitz’s goal, started Tuesday night tied for fifth place in the NHL scoring race.
It’s no wonder Crosby keeps asking to play with Kunitz.
“Getting a guy like Sid to say something about the way you play means a lot,” Kunitz said. “Obviously, I enjoy playing with him. I play for him. I try to do things that help create his game. I’m not a guy who’s out there looking for glory. I just want to help my team win.”
Kunitz is at his best when he hovers in front of the opponent’s net. That’s how he scored Tuesday night. He outfought Islanders defenseman Calvin de Haan to get his stick on Brian Dumoulin’s shot and deflect the puck by goaltender Jean-Francois Berube.
Kunitz called it “a fairly easy play. There wasn’t a lot of battling.” Dupuis, who was forced to quit the game in December because of blood clots, was impressed nonetheless.
“He goes to the hard areas to score goals. It’s all battles. It’s all will. It’s all about wanting it more than the guy next to you. He’s made a living in front of the net.”
Dupuis isn’t surprised Crosby still wants to play with Kunitz.
“Everybody wants to play with Chris. You know what kind of effort you’re going to get every night. You know he’s going to go to the wall for you. You know he’s got your back out there on the ice …
“He cares. He cares about the guy next to him. He wants everyone to do well. It has never been about him. It’s always the team. It’s about who he can help to be better.”
The Kunitz-Crosby-Patric Hornqvist line has to continue to produce if the Penguins are going to make the playoffs and do damage once they get there. That’s especially true with Evgeni Malkin out for 6-8 weeks with a left arm injury. The Penguins are fortunate to be 2-0 since Malkin’s latest injury and 7-4-1 without him this season.
Kunitz, Crosby and Hornqvist are on the first power play with Kris Letang and Justin Schultz. That unit went 0 for 3 Tuesday night. The Penguins power play is just 2 for 30 in the games Malkin has missed. The team misses his uncanny ability to get the puck in the offensive zone.
“It changes the dynamics,” Kunitz said of Malkin’s injury. “Me and [Hornqvist] are more net-front guys and recovery guys. Those are things we specialize in. We don’t want to be entering with the puck and trying to make plays through the middle of the ice.”
Kunitz said he’s confident the Penguins will figure out the power play. He’s also confident he won’t slow down as the games get tighter and the pressure builds.
“I started a little late. I didn’t play my first full [NHL] season until I was about 26. I think that’s benefiting me now. I still have a lot of energy to go play.”
There was speculation last season that Kunitz was about finished, although there were reports he was slowed by an iron deficiency. Now, there is reason to think he will be able to finish out his current three-year contract, which runs through next season and pays him $3.85 million per season.
“He loves the game and loves to be around the rink,” Dupuis said. “He loves to be a part of the winning solution. He has been that for a long period of time. I think he still has a lot left.”
Ron Cook: firstname.lastname@example.org and Twitter@RonCookPG. Ron Cook can be heard on the “Cook and Poni” show weekdays from 10 a.m. to 2 p.m. on 93.7 The Fan.
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