Where has Kunitz's game gone?
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Question: It seemed like when Chris Kunitz came to the Penguins, he did all the things we had heard about. Played a straight-line game, banged people around and got pucks to the net. I am wondering where this has gone in the playoffs. We saw a little physicality from him in the Philadelphia series, but he has not shot the puck much at all. Sidney Crosby does a nice job of drawing people toward him, which usually means Kunitz or Bill Guerin is open. Kunitz needs to get pucks to the net, and get back in front of the net where he had so much success when he came here. Do you think the coaches will move someone else to the top line, based on this?
Jim Meinecke, State College
MOLINARI: Kunitz still does a lot of the blue-collar things the Penguins were seeking when they acquired him from Anaheim -- for example, he has 19 hits in these playoffs, more than any teammate except Brooks Orpik (34) and Matt Cooke (22) -- but he has just three points, all assists, in the first seven games. (Opposing goalies have turned aside all 15 of his shots.) That might be satisfactory for a guy on the third line, but Kunitz is working alongside one of the top playmakers in the sport, filling a spot where chipping in a goal at least once every few games is not too much to expect.
Kunitz is not a pure sniper by any means, but has the skill and grit to be a consistent 25-goal man, which means it's reasonable to expect a goal from him every third game or so. And while nearly every player goes through droughts and hot streaks, of course, with the playoff field down to eight, teams can't afford to have top-six wingers lose their scoring touch for an extended period.
At this point, though, there's no indication Kunitz is in danger of losing his spot on Crosby's line, where he skated during yesterday's practice at the Verizon Center. Remember, it was a shortage of top-six forwards that prompted the Penguins to trade for him in the first place, so it's not as if they have a capable replacement standing by.
Question: Our power play is absolutely terrible right now. It seems like everyone is scared to take a shot, make a pass or get in front of the net. How can they perform this awful for so long, when I am sure they are constantly working on special teams in practice? We have two of the best players in the world and can't score five-on-four. What's the deal?
Chris Reilly, Raleigh, N.C.
MOLINARI: "Absolutely terrible?" Are you kidding? This is no time to sugarcoat it, Chris. The performance of the power play would have to be kicked up about three notches to even get within sniffing distance of "absolutely terrible." A few more outings like that 0-for-5 effort the Penguins offered during Game 1 against Washington, and perhaps someone will consider pressing charges.
If there's a complicated answer to your question, you won't find it here. (And if you could, you wouldn't get it anyway, because it would be sold to the Penguins for big money rather than being laid out in the Q&A.)
The Capitals' penalty-killers didn't do anything during the opener that the Penguins didn't know was coming, however, so there's no reason to think that inadequate preparation was a significant factor. It's not as if the Penguins neglect the power play, either, since they routinely work on it during practices, and often before. (Yesterday, members of the power play had a lengthy meeting before practice, and spent considerable time on it during the workout.) Of course, if the Penguins can't figure out how to successfully get out of their own zone and into the Washington end -- that would involve successfully executing a pass or two, which seemed to be a little too much to expect during most of their tries with the extra man during Game 1 -- nothing else will matter, and the Penguins will have to be content with trying to hold down the number of short-handed goals they give up.
If, however, the Penguins actually manage to navigate through the neutral zone and get set up in the Capitals' zone, there is no excuse for not getting as many pucks and bodies to the net as possible. Guerin is exceptionally effective at setting screens, and Kunitz can do that well, too. That won't matter, though, if point men Sergei Gonchar and Kris Letang, along with Crosby and Evgeni Malkin, are content passing the puck around the perimeter, as if they're trying to set up a three-point jump shot.
All of those guys have been involved in power plays long enough to know that there's no extra credit for scoring a particularly pretty goal, and they'd better start playing like it if they want their season to go on for more than another week or so.
First Published May 4, 2009 12:00 am