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Chris Kunitz is hero for Penguins in Game 7 win against Senators

Scores in second overtime, gives Pittsburgh chance to repeat as Stanley Cup champion

by Tom Gulitti @tomgulittinhl / NHL.com Staff Writer

PITTSBURGH -- The puck didn't come off Chris Kunitz's stick cleanly, so it was floating end over end and appeared to have eyes.

But those often are the kind of crazy shots that end marathon games like this one and make heroes of players like Kunitz, who scored 5:09 into the second overtime to give the Pittsburgh Penguins a 3-2 victory against the Ottawa Senators in Game 7 of the Eastern Conference Final at PPG Paints Arena on Thursday.

The Penguins advance to face the Nashville Predators in the Stanley Cup Final, which begins here Monday. They are the first defending champion to return to the Final since the Detroit Red Wings in 2009, and Kunitz's goal kept alive their bid to become the first repeat champion since the Red Wings in 1998.

 

[RELATED: Complete Penguins vs. Senators series coverage | Rosen: Senators in 'utter disbelief']

 

"It's nice to be able to contribute," Kunitz said, "but we all know it's a team game, and we're all going to have to pull our own weight at some point."

Although Kunitz's teammates appreciate what he'd done to help the Penguins get to this point, he might have wondered if he was pulling his weight. He hadn't scored in the Stanley Cup Playoffs this year before Thursday.

But with the Penguins' season and their repeat hopes hanging in the balance, Kunitz scored twice, first converting a 2-on-1 with Conor Sheary to open the scoring 9:55 into the second period, and then his sudden-death exclamation point on a one-timer from above the left circle.

"He's got that knack for being a big-game player and he does so many little things; probably a lot of things go unnoticed," Penguins captain Sidney Crosby said. "But I don't think those two goals will go unnoticed."

Video: OTT@PIT, Gm7: Kunitz wins series in double overtime

It was fitting that Crosby assisted on Kunitz's winner. He's fed Kunitz for countless one-timers during their nine seasons as teammates, so they have a sense for what the other likes to do. On Feb. 16, Crosby's 1,000th NHL point came when he set up Kunitz for a one-timer in a 4-3 overtime win against the Winnipeg Jets.

That was the last goal Kunitz scored this season before Thursday. The stakes were much higher this game.

The Penguins had thrown everything at Senators goaltender Craig Anderson and he frustrated them with save after save. It was beginning to look as if Anderson might steal this game, as he had stolen the Senators' 2-1 win in Game 6 in Ottawa on Tuesday, before Kunitz scored on the Penguins' 42nd shot.

After taking a pass from Schultz in the left circle, Crosby curled back from below the goal line to the left of the net and spotted Kunitz, who had drifted into some open ice with his stick cocked and waiting. Crosby slid a soft backhand pass into his wheelhouse.

"He wanted the puck," Crosby said. "You could tell the way he was holding his stick. He stopped right in that area. He wanted to let one rip and I don't know how much he got on it, but he put it in the right spot."

The fluttering puck floated up before knuckling under the right arm of Senators center Jean-Gabriel Pageau, who was in the slot and screened Anderson's view. Crouching to find the shot, Anderson played the odds and dropped down to a butterfly before it sailed in over his right shoulder.

"Looked like there was a good screen on the goalie. Looked like he fell down," Kunitz said. "Just found its way into the net. Sometimes you get lucky when you put one in the net."

Video: OTT@PIT, Gm7: Kunitz buries feed to open scoring

The back of the net rippled when the puck hit it, setting off the Penguins' celebration while the crowd erupted into a wall of sound. After more than 85 minutes of nail-biting hockey, Crosby's initial feeling was relief.

"It's just one of those games where when the stakes are this high anything can happen," he said. "So it's relief and excitement you're moving on to play in the Stanley Cup Final."

The Penguins learned again in this series why it is so hard to repeat. They dominated the Senators for long stretches, particularly in the final four games, but couldn't find a way to shake them.

Game 7 was a microcosm of that and the back and forth made it an instant classic.

After Kunitz's first goal gave Pittsburgh a 1-0 lead, Mark Stone scored 20 seconds later to pull the Senators even at 1-1. Justin Schultz's power-play goal with 8:16 left in the third period gave the Penguins a 2-1 lead, but the Senators answered again when Ryan Dzingel's goal with 5:19 remaining made it 2-2.

The Penguins outshot the Senators 8-2 in the first overtime and had chance after chance, but the puck did everything but go in. Phil Kessel drove to the net with 3:32 left in the first overtime and the puck went off Anderson, the crossbar and the top of the net before hitting the back bar and bouncing back onto the ice.

At that point, it would have been understandable if the Penguins started wondering if this wasn't going to be their night. But they persisted, and finally Kunitz's seeing-eye shot found its way in, writing his name into Stanley Cup Playoff lore alongside the New York Rangers' Stephane Matteau, who was the last player to score a Game 7 double overtime goal -- against the New Jersey Devils -- to send his team to the Stanley Cup Final in 1994.

"Sometimes it comes down to luck for a goal going against you and your season's over," Kunitz said. "So I'm happy that it's not over for us yet. We've got another challenge in front of us and another chance to win another Cup."

Video: OTT@PIT, Gm7: Kunitz on his goal, Pens' Game 7 win

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