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Kunitz expects Penguins to give Lightning tough test

Forward faces former team for first time since signing as free agent July 1

by Corey Long / Correspondent

TAMPA -- When Tampa Bay Lightning forward Chris Kunitz returned to Pittsburgh last month to escape Hurricane Irma, he quickly noticed things were a little different.

"I went back and skated when we left for the hurricane and felt a little out of place," Kunitz said. "I think that was the awkward stage, me being in blue and them all in Pittsburgh colors, so I got that out of the way."

Now Kunitz will take the next step when the Lightning (2-1-0) play the Pittsburgh Penguins (2-1-1) at Amalie Arena on Thursday (7:30 p.m. ET; SN360, TVA Sports, SUN, ATTSN-PT, NHL.TV). 

Kunitz, who signed a one-year, $2 million contract with the Lightning on July 1, played nine seasons with the Penguins after he was acquired in a trade from the Anaheim Ducks on Feb. 26, 2009. He had 388 points (169 goals, 219 assists) for the Penguins and won the Stanley Cup three times with them.

He had a big moment in Game 7 of the 2017 Eastern Conference Final when he scored the winning goal in the second overtime against the Ottawa Senators. However, after practice on Wednesday, Kunitz said he is more focused on what he needs to do to secure a Lightning win against the defending champions.

"I don't think I'm looking at it any different," Kunitz said. "You have go out there and prove your worth to your team every night. It doesn't matter where you were in the past and how you played. That's one of the messages we've tried to focus on, how can you help your team and what can you do to help the team win."

Kunitz, 38, showed his value to the Lightning on Monday when he scored his first goal of the season to help spark a 4-3 overtime win against the Washington Capitals. He expects a major early-season test from the Penguins even though they will be on the second half of a back-to-back. The Penguins defeated the Capitals 3-2 on Wednesday. 

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

"If you're the defending Cup champions you expect the test and they are always wanting to show their skill to test themselves against the best," Kunitz said. "And then when you're on the other side you're always saying 'this is our chance to test ourselves against the best'."

Kunitz is averaging 9:41 through three games. He knows he might see an uptick in ice time Thursday and there's a good chance he will be in the starting lineup. He said he is just going to try play his game and hopes to make an early impact.

"If I don't do that I probably won't get many shifts," Kunitz said. "I have to go out there and play the game hard. That's kind of how I always approached it."

If things don't go as planned, Kunitz will get another shot at the Penguins at Amalie Arena on Oct. 21. He admits things might be a little different when the Lightning travel to PPG Paints Arena on Nov. 25 and he returns to the place where he had so many good memories.

"[There might be] a little more emotion, just from spending so much time there and going back and everything being opposite," Kunitz said. "You take those steps in an arena you've been in so long and you're going down a different hallway and going to a different dressing room."

Kunitz wants to be all business this game. He's shared some information about the Penguins to his Lightning teammates and coaches that have asked. He won't have much time to catch up with his former teammates before or after the game, but he says that's just part of playing in the NHL.

"I think I've been around the League long enough to know that things change," Kunitz said. "I've played former teammates lots. It's one of the things you look forward to, playing against people you know. It's the best competition and you like to see how you measure against a team that is Stanley Cup champs, and hopefully we'll get them a little tired playing the back-to-back."

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