Ron Cook: Kunitz proves to be common denominator
A recurring theme for the Penguins is that no matter what line Chris Kunitz happens to be on, he and his linemates excel.
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In the 2010-11 NHL season, Penguins captain Sidney Crosby was averaging 1.61 points per game before a couple of unfortunate hits to his head in early January ended his season after 41 games. His linemates were Chris Kunitz and Pascal Dupuis.
Last season, Penguins star Evgeni Malkin scored 50 goals and won the NHL scoring title and most valuable player award. Linemate James Neal had 40 goals. The third man on their line was Kunitz.
This season, Crosby was tied for second in the scoring race with 25 points going into the game Sunday night against the Tampa Bay Lightning. He played the first 18 games with Kunitz and Dupuis.
In the Penguins' 5-3 win against the Lightning, Crosby scored the first two goals and finished with a three-point game. He skated with Kunitz and Neal, who replaced Dupuis on his right wing when coach Dan Bylsma reconfigured his lines after Malkin's concussion in the win Friday night against the Florida Panthers.
Is it just me or is there a common thread there?
Allow me to rephrase the question:
Is Kunitz a heck of a hockey player or what?
First line? Second line? Crosby? Malkin? It doesn't matter to Kunitz. His star center is going to excel. He's going to excel. He had 23 goals in 2010-11 and 26 last season. He has seven in 19 games this season.
"I've been pretty lucky to get to play with those guys," Kunitz said. "Those are pretty easy places to play."
Much of the attention before the game Sunday night revolved around Neal playing even-strength with Crosby for the first time since joining the Penguins near the trade deadline in 2011. Neal didn't get a goal against the Lightning, but he surely will score a bunch if he stays on Crosby's line. Crosby, like Malkin, is a terrific set-up man and Neal has become one of the NHL's best finishers.
But just as surely, Kunitz will continue to contribute, one way or another.
Sunday night, it was a great assist on Crosby's first goal. Kunitz got the puck to Crosby in full stride, enabling him to blow by defenseman Eric Brewer and beat goaltender Anders Lindback with a wrist shot. "You just try to get the puck to him quick," Kunitz said of Crosby. "He's so fast that it puts a little pressure on you to get it to him. He might be the fastest guy blue line to blue line in the league."
Friday night, it was a power-play goal in the second period that got the Penguins started in a 3-1 win. Kunitz was in front of the net, where he often is, and paid a big price, taking a vicious elbow in the head from Florida defenseman Mike Weaver just an instant after he knocked the puck in the net.
"You expect that once in a while," Kunitz said, although he wasn't thrilled about taking that particular elbow. "I don't mind playing a physical game. I know that's where I've got to go to be successful."
Kunitz's skill and toughness were on full display in those two plays. But he brings so much more for the Penguins night after night. You know his game has diversity, right? But this much?
Kunitz went into Sunday tied for 13th in the NHL scoring race with Detroit's Pavel Datsyuk with 20 points. His seven goals tie him for third on the Penguins with Dupuis behind Neal's 12 and Crosby's nine. His assist against the Lightning gave him points in 10 of the past 12 games (six goals, 11 assists).
Kunitz's four power-play goals were tied for ninth in the league. He's a big reason the Penguins have scored with the man-advantage in 11 consecutive games. He drew an interference call on Tampa Bay defenseman Sami Salo midway through the second period, leading to teammate Beau Bennett's first NHL goal on a 5-on-3 power play. That turned out to be the winning goal.
Kunitz is tied with Crosby for the Penguins' best plus-minus rating, a plus-9.
Kunitz ranks second on the team with 47 hits and had four Sunday night. He just about knocked Lightning defenseman Matthew Carle into next week with a check in the third period. "It's nice to get a hit like that once in a while," Kunitz said.
Kunitz doesn't get nearly the credit he deserves. It's hard to believe now that he was considered the second addition in the 2009 trade that also brought winger Eric Tangradi to the Penguins from Anaheim for defenseman Ryan Whitney. Tangradi did little here and was traded to Winnipeg Feb. 13 for a seventh-round draft choice.
Getting Kunitz was one of general manager Ray Shero's better moves.
But that won't stop many in the Penguins fan base from screaming for Shero to get a better winger to play with Crosby.
It happens every season around the trade deadline. It will happen again before the April 3 deadline this year.
"It doesn't bother me," Kunitz said. "The coaches put you where they think you can help the team. If I was doing something wrong, they'd find someone better. If you start thinking you're not good enough, that's when you're going to be tentative and start making mistakes. That's when they'll replace you. I hope that doesn't happen for a long time."
Clearly, Kunitz doesn't lack confidence.
He has a good reason for that.
He's a heck of a hockey player.
First Published February 25, 2013 12:00 am