Chris Kunitz had the most productive of his eight NHL seasons last year, racking up 61 points playing mostly alongside the even higher scoring Evgeni Malkin and James Neal. This season, however, back skating with old linemates Sidney Crosby and Pascal Dupuis, Kunitz had been largely invisible so far. And the more he struggled, the more he started second-guessing his instincts.
“I think that’s one of the huge things that gets frustrating,” Kunitz said. “You want to make up for everything that’s gone wrong with the next shift when, really, you’ve got to get back to what you’re successful at doing, and that’s putting the pucks in the right areas and making your percentages up.”
Going into this weekend, with the Penguins hosting the New Jersey Devils and then visiting the Washington Capitals, Kunitz had the added frustration of continuing to fight off a bug that kept him out of the team’s past few practices. But the 33-year-old winger went from being a game-time decision to catching fire, collecting six points over the weekend, including a hat trick on Sunday.
“The guys were saying after the game it’s because he got some rest and didn’t have to practice,” joked head coach Dan Bylsma.
“I was just trying to put the puck on net; I’ve been fighting [the puck] for quite a few games, too,” Kunitz said. “Just try to change some things, make sure you get in better areas on the ice and, luckily, a couple went in tonight.”
Four went in, to be exact, though one was changed and credited to defenseman Paul Martin.
“He got four,” Crosby said. “That was four. He had a great night, and it’s fun. You love to be a part of those games and, when you see a guy who’s that hot and he’s kind of feeling it, you try to get him the puck. It’s nice to see him get rewarded for all the hard work.”
“I didn’t even know they took the other one away from me, so I was trying to get Nealer back in the game, trying to bump some off to him,” Kunitz said. “But, whatever, that’s how it bounces, and no one around here really cares about that stuff. We’re worried about the two points and getting our team headed in the right direction.”
Indeed, with three convincing wins in a row – 3-0 at the New York Rangers, 5-1 over the Devils and 6-3 at Washington – the Penguins look far removed from the team that hit a low point last Tuesday, when it had dropped three out of four in equally convincing fashion.
For Kunitz and the Penguins, the upswing is coming thanks to the basics – working hard, keeping things simple and capitalizing on opportunities.
“Structurally wise, [we’re] moving the puck quick, putting the pucks in areas and making them go back for it – then, later in the game, making them take chances and being able to capitalize on odd-man rushes,” said Kunitz, who converted an errant pass from New Jersey’s Anton Volchenkov into a goal on Saturday. “When you get one turned over right there, you put it on net. It felt good for it to go in, definitely, but that doesn’t happen too often.”
What happens more often is a team facing the challenge of finding consistency within the emotional ebbs and flows of a game – and, for Bylsma, that’s where the Penguins are starting to improve.
“We weren’t where we needed to be or wanted to be at all for the better part of six games,” Bylsma said. “We’ve got to build. Tonight’s a perfect example of a game that wasn’t necessarily going all that smooth in the second period. They get a [fluky goal] off the glass and we have to respond to that and continue to play consistent and not get frustrated with the situation, and I thought our guys did a great job of that. Then we were [almost immediately] stuck with a penalty kill and had to come up really big.
“That response is more the mentality our team needs to have, and you can feel it – not just on the ice, but on the bench and in our focus.”
“We definitely have a better feeling in the room,” Kunitz said. “Guys are getting points, scoring goals. It makes you feel better and gives you a little more jump on the ice. It’s just really good to get a good win and keep going forward.”