Pens’ Kunitz Not to Be Overlooked

The 2010-11 NHL season has produced significant scientific evidence that Pittsburgh forward Chris Kunitz is related to a creature often referred to as “Taz.”

Well, maybe the observation is not truly scientific, and maybe humans cannot be related to Looney Tunes, but watch him play and it will certainly make sense.

The 31 year-old left-winger is having one of the best seasons of his career. Like the Tasmanian Devil, however, he’s doing it quickly and quietly – wreaking havoc on the opposition before they even have a chance to see him coming.

As far as the numbers show, Kunitz is not playing above his average. In 30 games he has logged 8 goals and 12 assists for a total of 20 points, putting him on pace for 53 points this season. He is actually a very consistent player – last season’s total of 32 points in 50 games had him on pace for 52 points overall, and he finished 2008-09 with 53 points between his time in Anaheim and Pittsburgh.

Kunitz is not outdoing himself on paper, but he is shining in an equally important way.

“A lot of times since Chris came here, we’ve talked about what he adds to (the first) line in terms of their speed,” Penguins Head Coach Dan Bylsma said in a press conference on December eighth.

“There’s been a net-front presence, a drive, a physical forechecking presence that allows turnovers and loose pucks and continued plays, and that’s added to Sidney (Crosby)’s game. I think this year in particular, you’re seeing a healthy Chris Kunitz and you’re seeing him add a little bit more passing-wise and offensive-wise. He’s made some great plays and he’s finished some great goals this year that maybe we didn’t see in the past. Chris dealt with some injuries all last year and there’s a complement there. Sid plays a straight-ahead, straightforward speed game. There’s not a lot of east-west, there’s not a lot of dangle in his game. His power and speed is around the net, it’s driving. And Chris Kunitz has complemented that, and we’ve seen that, especially in the last month—we’re seeing a lot of that with Chris and Sid.”

Lately, it is difficult to mention the Penguins without the conversation going to Sidney Crosby’s outstanding performance, but is it fair to credit Sid with the elevated level of play Kunitz is exhibiting?

Partially.

The chemistry Kunitz and Crosby have developed is remarkable. During Crosby’s 17-game point streak, Kunitz has contributed 14 points, versus the previous 13 games in which he had six. As a pair, they have 13 goals and 26 points between them for those 17.

When asked by the press how much he owes to Kunitz for his streak, Crosby replied, “Oh, a lot. (Kunitz) has made some great plays and (Pascal Dupuis) is forechecking and creating loose pucks. Hockey’s a team game; that never changes. You can’t have success without your line, without your team.”

Kunitz is looking more comfortable than ever in a Penguins uniform on the first line with Crosby and Pascal Dupuis, where his impact is definitely felt.

“I think both (Kunitz) and (Dupuis) have done a great job, created loose pucks and made some nice passes,” Crosby told the media on December seventh.

“I’ve had a couple great opportunities because of some of the work that (Kunitz) has done and the plays that he’s made.”

Following Wednesday’s victory over Toronto, Dupuis said of his linemates, “We’ve developed a good thing out there. These two guys are playing unbelievable hockey.”

Kunitz himself is in awe of what his Captain is capable of, but he makes sure to stay focused on the tasks at hand.

“You try not to get caught up in it, you want to just play the situations,” he told the media on December sixth.

“But I think we all have to sit back and watch and enjoy sometimes when he does those spectacular things out there. He’s hot right now, I think that’s the reason for our team having the success that we are. He’s doing it in all areas of the ice, he’s winning battles, he’s blocking shots, he’s winning key faceoffs at the end of games and things like that. Right now we’re on a good team roll, obviously we want to keep Sid and our team rolling every time we go out there.”

He has certainly been doing his part, but Kunitz’s success with Crosby is not where his skill set ends. If anything, it is more an example of his skill enhanced by chemistry. His strength is in being a presence on the ice, a combination of physicality, speed, and offensive playmaking. The up-tempo, physical style of the Penguins is a perfect match for such a player.

Statistics don’t do his contributions justice, as his game is not one of numbers. In true Taz fashion, Kunitz flies into the zone, clears a path between his teammates and the puck, and makes sure it hits the back of the net before anyone could figure out how to stop it. These plays might not get him points, but they get the Penguins goals.

“We are always going to talk about Crosby, when it continues to go like this,” said Bylsma following Monday’s 2-1 victory over New Jersey.

“Chris Kunitz and Pascal Dupuis have provided a pretty good compliment to what Sidney is doing. Kunitz is a guy who has always been a straight line, physical guy, presence at the net, and making room for Sid. I think Sid’s playing at a pretty high level, and making some good plays. Kunitz being the player we didn’t see at times early on, and is now finishing and making plays in addition to the crashing and banging with net presence and middle-lane drive. His contribution shouldn’t be overshadowed at all with the way that he is playing.”

If Kunitz continues to play with passion and skill he exhibits on a nightly basis, he will be impossible to ignore.

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