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Chemistry could make Kunitz, Crosby Olympic pair

by Aaron Vickers

CALGARY -- If coach Mike Babcock is looking for candidates to play on Sidney Crosby's line in Sochi, Chris Kunitz is ready to be first in line to apply.

After all, it's worked well for the pair as members of the Pittsburgh Penguins. The 33-year-old followed up a career-year in 2011-12 by finishing seventh in the NHL in scoring last season, amassing 22 goals and 52 points 48 games while playing primarily on Crosby's left wing.

That familiarity could give him a leg up on the competition.

"He knows the way I play," Kunitz said. "I don't try to change too often. I just try to get to the areas on the ice. He's the guy with the puck and making the plays. He believes in me and has the confidence you're going to be in the areas, it's going to work well for you. I'm going to keep my game almost simple but also go to the areas on the ice that make us successful when we play together."

Babcock didn't hesitate to put the duo together during ball hockey drills on the Olympic-sized surface at Marlin MacPhail Centre at Canada Olympic Park, putting the two Penguins with Patrick Sharp of the Chicago Blackhawks.


Kunitz, who is also familiar with Sharp, wasn't sure if the trio was placed together by design or coincidence.

"Who knows how they put the grouping together," he said. "Maybe it's familiarity. I skate with Sharpie in the summer when he's in Chicago; that's where I spend my off-season. They're just trying to get guys comfortable. I wouldn't read into anything too much right now."

Babcock also stressed the idea of not reading too much into the line combinations on display. In fact, he and his staff went so far as to carefully develop combinations to ensure the opposite would happen.

"We made sure that you [the media] couldn’t read too much into the lines," Babcock said. "On purpose. And the order they came out and everything. On purpose. I want every one of these guys knowing they have an opportunity to be an Olympian.

"I played with Crosby, I’m on the team, no -- don’t read into anything that happened here today."

In 2010, Babcock tried Crosby with a number of wingers before settling on Jarome Iginla. Crosby scored the game-winner 7:40 into overtime to lift Canada 3-2 over the USA. Iginla assisted on the play to give Canada its second gold medal in three Olympic tournaments.

Babcock's task now is finding what will click for Crosby four years later.

"You'd have to ask him, but I think guys that skate and pressure the puck," Babcock said. "He works fantastic off turnovers and off pressure. I think on the big ice, though, you can't play just with guys who give you the puck. You've got to have someone else to carry the puck a little bit just because there's so much space out there.

"Getting Sid playing at the highest level we can is important to us to have success, but he's just part of the team, too, and we're just going to put the guys in the best situations we can."

Given the undeniable chemistry between Crosby and Kunitz, the best situation for both could be to play the pair together.

Whether that's an option is still up for debate in Babcock's eyes.

"I think there's part of that, but let's watch them for three months," he said. "I don't have any answers for you here today. You want them, but I don't have them because I'm going to watch. Whoever plays good gets to play."

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