VANCOUVER -- As he prepared for his first game back at Rogers Arena since scoring the gold-medal clinching goal at the 2010 Vancouver Olympics, Pittsburgh Penguins superstar Sidney Crosby was never a doubt to return with Canada to the 2014 Sochi Olympics.
The same could not be said for Penguins linemate Chris Kunitz, but thanks in part to their chemistry together both are Russia bound.
The Penguins pair was named to the Canadian roster for the Sochi Games on Tuesday morning, and while Crosby's status was a no-brainer there were questions about Kunitz becoming a first-time Olympian at age 34, especially with big names like Claude Giroux, Martin St. Louis, Logan Couture and Eric Staal left off Canada's roster.
Kunitz is sixth in NHL scoring with 47 points in 44 games, and tied for fourth with 23 goals, including 11 on the power play. But many have suggested those numbers, and his spot on Canada's Olympic team, are all about playing with Crosby, even after Canada general manager Steve Yzerman said Kunitz made it on his own merit.
"I think he's earned every right to be part of this team and I've heard many people talk about that," Crosby said. "I don't think they would do that just because we are linemates. As a teammate and a friend I see what he does every single day and I have a great appreciation for what he brings to our team and the type of player he is. If anyone has a good idea of that, it's me spending every day playing with him."
Kunitz, who was seventh in the League with 52 points in 48 games last season despite Crosby missing a quarter of the season, was just happy to be on Canada's roster, regardless of the reasoning. And he wasn't hiding from Crosby making him a better player, but not just because they are playing together with the Penguins. Kunitz pointed instead to all the extra work the captain puts in practicing faceoffs and shots.
"He drives you to be better every single night," Kunitz said. "I am definitely appreciative of being able to playing with Sid at that level. He's raised my game and shown me what I need to do to compete every night and make yourself better and keep getting better."
Kunitz has certainly done that after not playing major junior hockey or being drafted in the NHL. He said the honor meant more at 34.
"It doesn't usually come around this late in your career," Kunitz said, adding the possibility of being named had begun to weigh on him.
"More than I originally thought it would," he said. "I tried to keep it on the back burner and always think about the next day, producing and trying to be consistent and showing you can play at a high level with one of the best players in the world. But the closer that it got, right after the U.S. team was announced (on Jan. 1) I definitely spent hours thinking about it and talking about scenarios with my wife."
As for the duo's chemistry, Crosby, who may have been facing questions about an underwhelming Vancouver Olympics if not for scoring the decisive goal in overtime, thinks it will help Canada in Sochi.
"The fact I do have chemistry with him and we are familiar with one another, I think that can only help in a short-term event," said Crosby, who had four goals and seven points in seven games in Vancouver. "But there's never any guarantees as far as line combinations."
That said, it's not like Kunitz doesn't have other options on the Canadian team. As Pittsburgh coach Dan Bylsma pointed out when asked about Kunitz making the team because of Crosby, he also had success, and won a Stanley Cup, with fellow Canadian Olympic forwards Corey Perry and Ryan Getzlaf of the Anaheim Ducks.
"I think he's been on three of the top six lines maybe in the last six years," said Bylsma, also pointing to a dominant run alongside Evgeni Malkin and James Neal two seasons ago. "So it's not just a line with Sidney Crosby. He's proven he can play, not just with Crosby. He's proven he can play with other guys that are on that team."