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Kunitz has elevated his game in absence of Crosby

by Mike G. Morreale
PHILADELPHIA -- Despite the loss of linemate Sidney Crosby, left wing Chris Kunitz might very well be playing his best hockey since arriving in Pittsburgh two years ago.

Don't believe it? Just ask his coach, Dan Bylsma.

"It might be some of the best games I've seen him play for the Penguins ... he's elevated his game," Bylsma said. "I think he's really setting the tone for our team in a lot of aspects through his work ethic and how we're playing the game with speed. It's a great time of the year, and I think Chris is excited about how he feels physically and it's really noticeable on the ice."

It also helps that Kunitz has found some chemistry alongside Jordan Staal and Tyler Kennedy on the team's second line. The Kunitz-Staal-Kennedy trio has actually produced 9 goals over the last four games. Kunitz, who is in his seventh NHL season and third with the Penguins, has led the attack with 4 goals, 8 points, 6 hits and 10 shots over that four-game stretch.

"Being healthy obviously helps a little, because those first couple of games back I didn't play as well as I wanted to and was fighting it a little," Kunitz told "But with new linemates, we figured it out and are now playing systems that help each one of us succeed -- that's putting pucks deep, working the defense and taking pucks to the net. That's something we've been trying to do better as a line."

Kunitz missed almost a month (13 games) this season with an undisclosed lower-body injury, but has certainly picked up the pace. He has 19 goals and 37 points over his last 43 games and 22 goals and 44 points in 58 games for the season. Additionally, he's second on the team with 7 power-play goals and sixth with 132 hits.

Bylsma said he had a meeting with the three following a 3-0 loss to Montreal on March 12 -- in which the line combined for a minus-4 rating.

"We talked about that situation and the roles they would play and, since then, they've been good at both ends of the rink," Bylsma said. "They've been a factor in shutting down other team's top line and in situations where we've needed to play defense. But they've also been a force in the other direction into the offensive zone."

Staal and Kunitz first played together after the latter was acquired from Anaheim in 2009 and the two meshed almost instantly. Now, the duo is finding that chemistry once again.

"It's awesome," Staal said. "Chris does a great job of creating space, he hits hard and he makes plays off of nothing, really. It's great to have him on the line."

"Me and Staalsy have been playing together for quite a while and Kunnie is very easy to play with -- I think we work well off of each other," Kennedy said. "Kunnie has a great scoring touch and can put the puck in the back of the net. He hits hard and can skate well."

Bylsma is hoping Kunitz can sustain his strong play with and away from the puck on Thursday when his team battles its intrastate rival, the Eastern Conference-leading Philadelphia Flyers, here at Wells Fargo Center.

"It doesn't matter who I'm playing with or who's in the lineup," Kunitz said. "When you start changing your game, it's probably not a good thing. You have to make sure you can do what makes you successful and the coaches put you in areas that help you. I'm a guy who gets in on the forecheck, creates turnovers and goes to the net and in the tough areas on the ice, and then tries to bang in goals.

"I'm just trying to play my game and it feels good being healthy, having fun and getting that good chemistry with my linemates."

Flyers defenseman Sean O'Donnell, who played with Kunitz in Anaheim during the team's Stanley Cup run in 2007, isn't surprised by his former teammate's recent success.

"Chris was a great complement on a line with Andy McDonald and Teemu Selanne," O'Donnell told "They were skilled guys, and Kunnie's the kind of guy who brings a little sandpaper. He's a physical guy, but he's also got the speed that can keep up with guys that can skate. He has a high skill level and is a unique guy where he can play anywhere on the top three lines and fill in."

The veteran Flyers defenseman anticipates the gritty Kunitz will be bearing down on him at some point in the game.

"I don't look forward to it if I have the puck and he's coming hard down at me because he can hit pretty hard," O'Donnell said with a laugh. "Usually, off a faceoff, we'll say hi really quick, but these games are big. I wouldn't say we're going to do something dirty to one another, but we're both competitors and both want to win, so if we have an opportunity to hit the other or make a good hockey play, so be it."

Follow Mike Morreale on Twitter at: @mike_morreale
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