Penguins' Kunitz gets his points across
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Understand that Tony Granato has no special psychic powers.
It was not a gift for seeing into the future that allowed him to predict a few days ago that Chris Kunitz was on the cusp of ending his season-long goal-scoring drought.
Instead, it was a simple recognition of history, a grasp of what Kunitz has done in the past and how that shaped what the Penguins could expect from him in games to come.
"He's so rock-solid," Granato said. "He's done a great job on the [power play] in front of the net -- he's created some goals for us on the power play, just by his presence in front of the net -- so he'll get it going.
"At this point of the year, you always have a couple of guys who are ahead of their pace, and a couple of guys who are behind their pace. Things will all even out. He'll get his goals."
Kunitz got his first early in the second period of the Penguins' 4-2 victory at Minnesota Tuesday night, when he pounded a shot past Wild goalie Niklas Backstrom from high on the inner edge of the left circle.
Kunitz had acknowledged before the Penguins' 2-1 loss in Winnipeg Monday night that he was keenly aware of his failure to score through the first week-plus of the season, but was adamant about not allowing that to affect his approach to the rest of his job.
"I definitely want to help out on the offensive side," Kunitz said. "When we're struggling to find goals, it's my job to be in front and make some of those dirty ones go in.
"I'm not going to score too many pretty ones. It's definitely something you think about. You want to help your team out offensively, but I have to do other things to make my game successful."
Goals or not, Kunitz has been doing those things since the earliest days of the preseason -- "He had a really strong camp," said Granato, who oversees the Penguins forwards -- which is part of the reason his team will take a 4-2-2 record into its game against Montreal tonight at 7:08 at Consol Energy Center.
The Penguins played eight games during the first 13 days of 2011-12, with stops in six cities spanning four times zones. All without getting a single shift from Sidney Crosby, Brooks Orpik or Dustin Jeffrey, and having Evgeni Malkin in uniform only three times.
Coach Dan Bylsma hinted Tuesday that at least one of those players might return against the Canadiens -- he did not specify who, although it will not be Crosby -- but the Penguins also will be without defenseman Kris Letang, who will complete a two-game suspension, and Tyler Kennedy seems unlikely to dress after missing the past two games because of concussion-like symptoms.
Kunitz's importance to this team has been evident since he was acquired from Anaheim in 2009, and it is only enhanced when so many other top-six forwards are not available. Granato suggested that Kunitz's inability to get a goal through the early days of this season actually might have been connected to the absence of guys like Crosby and Malkin.
Not because Kunitz can't be productive without an elite center, but because he might have been putting undue pressure on himself to help offset the impact of their absence.
"You want to contribute so bad and help your team, especially with a few guys out of the lineup," Granato said. "You take more responsibility on yourself, thinking you have to produce, and that's probably when things don't go as well for you."
Kunitz's dry spell certainly did not stem from an inability to get pucks on goal. He has been credited with 20 shots, tied for the second-most on the team.
"I know I have to put pucks on the net and go to the net," he said. "That makes our line successful, doing those types of things. If they bounce in for you, they bounce in for you."
That generally happens 20 to 25 times per season for Kunitz, especially when he is able to dress for a significant share of his team's games. That never is a certainty because, while Kunitz is not a particularly big man -- he is listed as 6 feet, 193 pounds -- he plays a power game.
His fearless, physical style makes things unpleasant for opponents -- "He's a guy that the other team, I can guarantee you, does not like to play against," Granato said -- but takes a toll on Kunitz, too. Especially with the workload the coaching staff is wont to give him.
"He's one of the guys you want on the ice all the time because he does so many things so well," Granato said. "He's physical, he gets in on the forecheck, and that net-front presence has been outstanding."
The Penguins consider Kunitz a big enough part of their personnel puzzle that they have signed him to a contract extension that will not expire until he's deep into his 34th year. Management, though, does not seem concerned about whether Kunitz will be able to hold up until then.
"He's got a great work ethic, great competitiveness from inside," Granato said. "That's a nice guy to have for another few years."
First Published October 20, 2011 12:00 am