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Kunitz faces former team tonight when Bolts host Pens

After winning three Stanley Cups in Pittsburgh, the new Lightning forward is set to take on his old squad for the first time

by Bryan Burns /

When Hurricane Irma threatened the Tampa Bay area and most of the Lightning evacuated out of the path of the storm, the Bolts' newest member Chris Kunitz went back to Pittsburgh to work out with his former teammates at the Penguins' training facility.

It's not uncommon for players to skate with teams they were traded from or left during the offseason. Before Lightning training camp this season, former Bolts center Valtteri Filppula was a regular visitor at the Ice Sports Forum for informal workouts.

But when Kunitz returned to the Steel City while waiting out the hurricane, he took the ice at the UPMC Lemieux Sports Complex wearing Bolts' blue.

And that's when reality set in just how different this season, his 14th in the league, would be for him.

"Dressing in a different locker room, being a different color out there, I think that kind of, not a rude awakening but something that maybe took the edge off of playing in this game around," Kunitz said at morning skate prior to Tampa Bay's contest against the two-time defending Stanley Cup champion Penguins at AMALIE Arena tonight. "To me, it didn't look any different, but to them it obviously did. I was wearing blue. I was a different color out there, so I think that hopefully helped in the transition of being here and make myself feel welcome down in Tampa."

Kunitz has certainly been a welcome addition to the Bolts, as much for his veteran leadership and playoff experience - he's won four Stanley Cups, three with Pittsburgh and one in Anaheim - as for his hard-nosed, sandpaper playing style. In Tampa Bay's come-from-behind 4-3 overtime victory versus Washington on Monday, Kunitz was the one to ignite the rally, scoring a critical goal going into the second intermission to cut the Bolts' deficit to one.

Video: WSH@TBL: Kunitz tips in Stralman's shot for the goal

Tampa Bay would go on to dominate the third period and extra session to pull out its second victory in three games this season.

"He brings so much more than just on the ice," Lightning captain Steven Stamkos said. "He's a leader. He's obviously been very successful in this league. I'm sure he'll have an extra step tonight when it comes to facing them, the guys he's had a lot of success with. I'm sure he's still close with them, but when the puck drops, you always want to beat them. Hopefully we can help him out tonight."

Kunitz became a free agent during the summer after nine seasons and 569 regular season games with the Penguins. He said he specifically identified the Lightning as a potential landing place because of the talent on their roster. The Lightning had a mutual interest in Kunitz, and on July 1, he signed a one-year contract with the Bolts.

"You try and go find the footprint of the team that has success, and this is one of the teams we definitely had our eye on and for them to have a mutual interest is something that's important as well," Kunitz said. "I'm looking forward to going out there and competing every single game."

And that includes against his former team tonight. Kunitz said there won't be a lot of trash talk -- "I've never been a really big talker. More body checks and rubbing people is more of my style." - but he's had this game circled on the calendar once the schedule was released.

"He's been such a valuable teammate already to us," Lightning head coach Jon Cooper said. "I know just in the short time he's been here what he probably meant to Pittsburgh in all the years he was there. He's somebody you want on your team. I'm pretty sure over there they've got a lot of respect for him. But I know Chris Kunitz is not going to change the way he plays. He's got the Bolts colors on now and he's going to do everything to help us win. I'm just glad he's on our bench and not there's."

PAQUETTE OUT: Cedric Paquette participated in Thursday's optional morning skate after sitting out the last two days for body maintenance. But the Lightning center won't be in the lineup tonight despite continuing to improve from a day-to-day lower-body injury.

"It's nothing serious, just something that really bothers me," he said. "It's frustrating for sure."

Paquette recorded his first point of the season on Monday after tallying an assist on the Bolts' second goal.

Cooper said he hopes to have Paquette back in the lineup soon.

"He got banged up the other night," Cooper said. "We thought a little rest would help, and it's helping. I don't see this as a long-term thing. It may be just tonight, but, yeah, he's going to be out tonight."

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