Penguins F Kunitz thriving on line with Crosby

Chris Kunitz planted himself in the crease, bent over, put his

stick on the ground and waited.

Even as a New York Islanders defenseman leaned on the Pittsburgh

Penguins forward trying to nudge him away from goaltender Evgeni

Nabokov, Kunitz’s skates appeared to be glued to the ice.

When the pass came from teammate James Neal moments later,

Kunitz – a statue in the middle of chaos – casually tapped it into

the wide open net.

With an almost sheepish grin the nine-year veteran lifted his

stick in celebration, as if to say, ”Again? For real?”

For real.

Such is life these days for one of the NHL’s hottest players,

one who has spent most of his nine-year career living comfortably

in the shadow of his high-profile teammates only to find himself

maybe becoming one himself.

A quick scan of the NHL’s leading scorers more than halfway

through the season includes the usual suspects, including

Pittsburgh’s Sidney Crosby and Tampa Bay’s Steven Stamkos at the


At the moment, it also includes a blue collar guy who has

developed a knack for lighting the red lamp.

Heading into Tuesday night’s showdown with the Boston Bruins,

Kunitz is third in the league in scoring. His 36 points on 17 goals

and 19 assists puts him well ahead of guys whose resumes are

littered with All-Star appearances and whose paychecks come with a

few more zeros.

The 31-year-old’s plus/minus ratio of plus-21 is the highest in

the league and he’s turning an eye-popping 29 percent of his shots

into goals. Kunitz, as is his way, insists he’s not doing anything


Ask Kunitz what’s the secret to the dramatic uptick in his

production and he deflects any praise onto a guy more used to the


”I get to play with the best player in the world every night,”

Kunitz said, nodding toward Crosby’s locker. ”It makes going out

and playing a lot of fun.”

Crosby, however, knows it’s more than just luck. While the

former MVP appears to be fully recovered from the concussion-like

symptoms that basically robbed him of nearly two years in his

prime, Crosby says it’s Kunitz who is doing all the hard work, not

the other way around.

”The way Kuni’s firing the puck right now, he makes all of us

look good by putting the puck in the back of the net,” Crosby


It’s happening with alarming regularity.

Kunitz set career highs in goals (26) and points (61) last

season while not missing a game, playing most of the time alongside

Neal and NHL MVP Evgeni Malkin. Yet somehow he is on pace to

surpass both totals despite a schedule basically cleaved in half

due to the lockout.

And Kunitz is doing it in a drastically different way than his

linemates. He doesn’t have Crosby’s breathtaking talent or Neal’s

powerful slap shot. What he does have is an ability to work in

tight spaces and find the puck through a crowd of sticks.

It’s what he did with ease against the Islanders. Though a few

of his goals this season have come from farther out in the

offensive zone – to the point coach Dan Bylsma joked he was getting

tired of answering questions about the way Kunitz is playing – his

three tallies in Sunday night’s 6-1 romp over New York traveled a

grand total of 10 feet.

The first was the easy tap-in at the end of a 5-on-3 power play

that gave the Penguins a 2-0 lead. The second came on a nifty

give-and-go with Neal in which he redirected a crossing pass from

Neal into the twine. For the third, he used his soft hands to bat

in rebound off a Kris Letang shot.

Seconds later, the Consol Energy Center ice was covered in hats

and sock monkey puppets that were part of a promotion. Kunitz

laughed at the sight of workers scooping up the mass of stuffed

animals and dumping them into trash cans.

Kunitz also added two assists as the Penguins won their fifth

straight. It was the kind of dominant performance that showcased

just how dangerous the Atlantic Division leaders are even without

Malkin, who is sidelined for the next two weeks with an undisclosed

upper body injury.

The evolution of Kunitz from goal-crease nuisance to

goal-scoring machine means the Penguins should be fine without

Malkin, at least for a little while. In a way it’s like trading a

Porsche for a family sedan. It might not be as showy, but it can

get you there and back when necessary, kind of like Kunitz.

Pittsburgh spent the better part of a couple years trying to

find a winger that could gel with Crosby. Turns out, that winger

has been there all along.

”He’s not a flashy payer, not a guy that goes end to end and

beat guys one on one,” Bylsma said. ”It’s straight lines, simple

plays, finding the back of the net. We’re going to keep letting him

do that.”

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