For all the good that Sidney Crosby's incredible vision and unique playmaking skills are doing for Chris Kunitz's production this season, the Pittsburgh Penguins captain said he is the one who has become a more reliable and complete player as a result of following the lead of his linemate.
Left Wing - PIT
GOALS: 17 | ASST: 19 | PTS: 36
SOG: 59 | +/-: 21
Call him humble if you want, but this isn't Crosby just tossing out a benign complement. Kunitz means too much to him for that.
"With any teammate, you want to make sure you're accountable to him," Crosby told NHL.com. "He [Kunitz] is going in on the forecheck and creating loose pucks, so if I'm the first one in I want to make sure I'm doing the same thing. You build that trust.
"He's just so dependable and that's contagious. When a guy is that responsible, you want to make sure you're following that up."
Entering their game Tuesday against the Boston Bruins (7:30 p.m. ET, NBCSN, TSN), Crosby and Kunitz are the most productive duo in the National Hockey League this season because the chemistry and trust they have in one another is matching their combined skill and drive. It never was more evident than in Pittsburgh's 6-1 win against the New York Islanders on Sunday, when they each had five points, including a hat trick for Kunitz -- with Crosby assisting on all three goals.
"He's been under the radar," Penguins general manager Ray Shero told NHL.com of Kunitz. "Now he's not."
Crosby has a League-best 45 points, eight more than anyone else. He's on pace for 83 points this season and would be on pace for 142 points in a typical 82-game season.
Kunitz is third in the NHL with 36 points, including 17 goals. He's on pace for 66 points, which would top his career-high of 61, a total he reached last season -- in 82 games.
With Getzlaf signed, Ducks turn to Perry
By Curtis Zupke - NHL.com Correspondent With Ryan Getzlaf under contract through the 2020-21 season, Ducks GM Bob Murray can turn his focus to signing free-agent-to-be Corey Perry. READ MORE ›
"There's two different skill sets out there, but I think maybe the consistency of doing it over and over and over gives him [Crosby] the belief that I'm always going to be in a certain area or at least I'm going to be toward the net or around the puck on the forecheck," Kunitz said. "I think that maybe gives him more comfort going down on a puck or making a play to an area.
"Obviously with his skill and his vision he can put pucks no matter where, but if he feels comfortable that I'm going to be in an area we have some chemistry going that way."
Crosby and Kunitz have developed chemistry as on-again, off-again linemates since Kunitz arrived in Pittsburgh four years ago. That was Shero's plan on Feb. 26, 2009, when he acquired Kunitz and Eric Tangradi from the Anaheim Ducks in exchange for Ryan Whitney.
Shero, Penguins coach Dan Bylsma and former assistant general manager Chuck Fletcher saw a player in Kunitz who had enough speed to play with Crosby, who thrived by playing a simple up-and-down game, and who had a history of playing with top players.
"Usually, I say you acquire the player and it's up to Dan where he can play, but in this case we felt Chris was the type of guy that could play with Sid," Shero told NHL.com. "That goes to more of an educated guess. He had played with good players before and we saw him playing quite a bit in the minors. That was one of the guys that we felt, looking at wingers, we wanted to acquire because of his speed and ability to play with good players."
Their time together was interrupted by Crosby's concussion problems, but in games they have played together, Kunitz has scored 55 goals, of which Crosby has assisted on 33. Crosby has assisted on 13 of Kunitz's 17 goals this season.
They're on a torrid pace of late with Crosby assisting on all 10 of Kunitz's goals over the past seven games. Bylsma said the difference in their production of late has a lot to do with Kunitz's ability to use his shot from the slot.
"Chris does a lot of little things well to be a good complementary guy to play with," Bylsma said. "He goes hard to the net, forces turnovers, is a physical guy, but maybe more so this year than other he has moved into that slot area and been a weapon with his shot. He's done that really well.
"As a line, you better not just have two or three guys on Sidney Crosby and not paying any attention to 14, because he's been a big weapon for us on that line in terms of using his shot in that slot area."
Kunitz said he's successful playing with Crosby because he tries to do only what he does best: use his speed and play a straight-line game. It's the same way he played when he was on a line with Getzlaf and Perry or Selanne and McDonald.
"Honestly, I don't and I can't change my game," he said. "If I can play hard on the puck, people always pay attention to him [Crosby], so I can find some open space and you just have to be prepared. You have to play your game; you can't change it too much.
"I know if I start going East-West, curling and dragging and trying to make plays that way, I won't be very successful in this League."
Crosby called Kunitz the ideal wing to play with because he never tries anything out of the ordinary and is always going to the hard areas.
"You want to know exactly what to expect as a centerman and every night you know he's going to be physical, he's going to create loose pucks, he's going to be around the net," Crosby said.
"It's much easier to read off of those plays when you know where a guy is going to be. On top of that, the way he competes every night, if you want consistency, that helps a lot.
"Kuni is pretty easy to read."
And hard to defend -- especially when No. 87 is setting him up.
"Sid is about trust," Shero said. "He's got that in Kunitz."