Penguins' Kunitz making impact on Crosby's line
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Chris Kunitz didn't land in Pittsburgh by choice.
Not that many NHL wingers would complain about winning a Stanley Cup, playing for a perennial contender and manning the left side of a top line featuring Penguins star center Sidney Crosby.
But before he was acquired by the Penguins in a February 2009 trade, Kunitz, who wasn't drafted, had picked his path -- Ferris State in Michigan for college, Anaheim in the NHL as a free agent.
"All the way, he got to make his choice," said Kunitz's father, Marvin.
Considering the younger Kunitz is in a situation that was foisted upon him, things aren't so bad.
This season, he is the team's top-producing winger with seven goals, 12 points in 21 games. He has five goals, six points and a plus-minus rating of plus-5 over the past seven games. In the 5-4 shootout win Friday against Carolina, he scored twice on four shots, had four hits and dove to block a shot.
While he said he likes to chip in offensively, his biggest attribute is his physical play.
"You go through stretches [of scoring]," he said. "I don't have to produce points to make myself feel like I'm contributing. There's a bit of pride in that area [of hitting] because you create space for your linemates."
Although he is solid but not physically imposing at 6 feet, 193 pounds, Kunitz, 31, is third on the club with 58 hits. His propensity to knock opponents off the puck -- or react as if they are about to be knocked off the puck -- helps produce opportunities for him and linemates Crosby and Pascal Dupuis.
Crosby has been playing at an exceptionally high level lately, but it likely is no coincidence that he has 14 points over the seven games in which Kunitz has been on a hot streak.
This is the first time the Penguins have seen what Kunitz can do from the start of a season when he is healthy. Last season, he was limited by a torn abdominal muscle that required January surgery, then by a torn groin muscle. He finished with 13 goals, 30 points in 50 games after reaching at least 50 points in each of his previous three seasons.
"Maybe what we missed a little bit last year was his ability to create off our forecheck with his skating," coach Dan Bylsma said. "Even puck pursuit in the offensive zone -- he's quick to jump on pucks. And, when he creates a turnover or he forces a guy in to a predictable play ... the next play is a hurried play, a loose puck situation, and it's creating more for that line."
Marvin Kunitz, a retired general manager of an animal feed plant who lives in Calgary after he and Penny Kunitz raised their family in Regina, Saskatchewan, will take part in the Penguins' fathers' trip that includes games Monday at Florida and Wednesday at Buffalo. He expects to see the same hard-hitting son he has watched since Chris was little.
"That's the way he always played," the older Kunitz said. "He was always undersized or average size."
Even a broken collarbone his first year of pee wee hockey didn't deter him.
"I don't know if it's from being the youngest of three boys and always having my brothers [Mike and Dave] to compete against and wrestle with, but I always enjoyed the physical part of the game right from those first days you could hit," Chris Kunitz said. "Maybe my parents bought me shoulder pads that were big enough so that nothing hurt. I probably fell out of too many trees or something [to shy away from hitting]."
Kunitz matured with Anaheim in the Western Conference, where teams tend to play with more of a physical edge.
He wasn't about to change his style when he came to the East along with prospect Eric Tangradi in exchange for defenseman Ryan Whitney just before the 2009 trade deadline.
Still, the deal was a jolt for Kunitz after he had dictated where he played, won a Cup with the Ducks and settled in in California.
"It was tough. It was emotional," he said. "My wife was 35 weeks pregnant with our first son. We had everything set up -- a house and crib. But you learn that it's a business also.
"Pittsburgh had open arms. We found a doctor, our son was born on the opening night of the playoffs. Everything went seamlessly, but it's a part of the game that you aren't aware of until it happens to you. We had built so many good friendships, people we met in the Anaheim area."
After that adjustment and an injury-plagued season, Kunitz is fully comfortable now.
"Pittsburgh's been a great change," he said. "We've really enjoyed our time here."
NOTE -- The Penguins, 4-0-1 in their past five games, were given a day off Saturday. Friday marked their sixth game in the past 10 days.