Once again, the two provided the Penguins with an offensive spark. Kunitz scored twice and Crosby had three points, his NHL-leading 92nd three-point game since 2005-06, to lead the Penguins to a 3-2 win against the Washington Capitals at Verizon Center on Monday.
"It was a very good game in all aspects," Penguins coach Dan Bylsma said of the play of the new-look first line of Kunitz, Crosby and Lee Stempniak, who was acquired Wednesday from the Calgary Flames. "I thought 5-on-5 play we saw the speed they generated and got the scoring chances, used them in the [defensive] zone and did a great job there. They were exceptional."
With the win, the Penguins reclaimed the top spot in the Eastern Conference, overtaking the idle Boston Bruins, who surpassed them Sunday.
Washington, which fell to 0-6-0 against Pittsburgh under coach Adam Oates, remains just outside of the Stanley Cup Playoff picture in the Eastern Conference. The Capitals trail the Columbus Blue Jackets by one point.
"Every time when we don't win the game, [it puts us] back in the standings," forward Alex Ovechkin said. "We now in desperate position and we going to fight through it."
In his highly anticipated NHL debut, Capitals forward Evgeny Kuznetsov recorded two shots in 10:22 of ice time, seeing spot duty on the first line alongside Ovechkin and Nicklas Backstrom and on the second power-play unit.
"I thought he did great," Oates said of Kuznetsov. "As we talked about [recently], I think we have to be patient and be realistic about expectations because it's a foreign league for him. It's a foreign system. He's never played this way. He's never played in front of this many people, really. So for me, I want to ease him in, use him as much as possible, but also be fair to him and give him a chance to grow with the team and within."
The hype surrounding Kuznetsov's debut combined with the contentious nature of games between the two Metropolitan Division rivals made for an exciting start as three of the first five shots found their way into the back of the net.
Pittsburgh struck first 46 seconds in when Kunitz converted a cross-ice feed from Crosby, who caught his wing in stride from the red line.
The Capitals responded at 3:03. Eric Fehr sent the puck up ice to Joel Ward, who fended off Matt Niskanen along the left-wing boards, freeing up the puck for Jason Chimera. As Fehr charged toward the net, he corralled Chimera's centering pass with his skate and chipped the puck past Penguins goaltender Jeff Zatkoff (31 saves).
Pittsburgh wasted little time restoring its one-goal lead, scoring 49 seconds later on the power play. With Backstrom in the penalty box for slashing Crosby, the Penguins captain scored his 30th goal of the season on a one-timer 11 seconds into the man advantage.
"I don't take too many of those," Crosby said of his long-range blast. "It's nice to see one go in, Usually I'm a little closer when they go in, so it's nice to get one."
For the Capitals, the second period began with one of their most dominant puck-possession performances of the season. Washington kept Pittsburgh pinned in its own zone and registered 15 of the period's first 16 shots.
On their second power-play opportunity of the period, Backstrom tied the game at 2-2 when his wrist shot deflected off Penguins defenseman Rob Scuderi and past Zatkoff at 8:57.
Despite the lopsided shot total, the Penguins still entered the second intermission with a one-goal lead, scoring less than four minutes after Backstrom did to take a 3-2 lead.
Halak made the initial save on Stempniak's wrist shot, but could not control the rebound, allowing Kunitz to push it past him for his second goal of the game.
"I thought we played very well offensively," Fehr said. "We got everybody involved, we were cycling the puck, not just cycling it but taking it to the net and making plays and we haven't done that in a lot of games in the last month, so that was promising. But at the end of the day, you don't get two points and that's what it comes down to."
The Penguins held off the Capitals in the third period, most impressively killing off a late power-play opportunity after being caught with too many men on the ice.
With Halak pulled in favor of an extra attacker with 1:21 remaining, the Capitals had a lengthy 6-on-4 advantage, but the Penguins' top-ranked penalty-killing unit thwarted the League's second-ranked power play to seal the victory.
"I think we did a good job taking away the passing lanes through the middle," Scuderi said in regards to stopping the Capitals' power play. "Certainly, they've got Ovechkin and [defenseman John] Carlson with big one-timers and they try to set up with Backstrom on one side and look for those two on the other. I thought we did a good job just sitting back and not giving them passing lanes and making them shoot themselves.
"It's way easier for the defense and goalie if you can just keep the puck on one half of the ice and not have to be going side to side. I guess I thought everyone did a good job with that."
The teams will meet again Tuesday at Consol Energy Center.
|Chris Kunitz (30) ASST: Sidney Crosby (56), Lee Stempniak (16)|
1 - 0 PIT
|Eric Fehr (11) ASST: Jason Chimera (22), Joel Ward (19)|
1 - 1 Tie
|PPG - Sidney Crosby (30) ASST: Evgeni Malkin (46), Olli Maatta (19)|
2 - 1 PIT
|PPG - Nicklas Backstrom (13) ASST: Brooks Laich (7), John Carlson (19)|
2 - 2 Tie
|Chris Kunitz (31) ASST: Lee Stempniak (17), Sidney Crosby (57)|
3 - 2 PIT
|Nicklas Backstrom Slashing against Sidney Crosby|
|Brooks Orpik Slashing against John Carlson|
|Alex Ovechkin Roughing against Sidney Crosby|
|Sidney Crosby Holding against Dustin Penner|
|Joe Vitale Tripping against Troy Brouwer|
|Jason Chimera Hi-sticking against James Neal|
|Jussi Jokinen Too many men/ice - bench|