CRANBERRY, Pa. -- The opportunity to play alongside top players, using his physical skills and smarts, being in the right position at the right time and a dose of good luck have helped forward Chris Kunitz break into a hot streak at the perfect time for the Pittsburgh Penguins.
But don't undersell the role Kunitz's new stick has played in his beefed-up production in the past three games, including the first two in the Stanley Cup Final against the Nashville Predators.
Kunitz changed to Warrior-brand sticks during the season and began using his current stick during the Eastern Conference Second Round against the Washington Capitals.
He needed time to adjust and get comfortable with it, but the stick, the fifth new stick he has tried this season, has helped him produce seven points (two goals, five assists) in the past three games. He scored two goals, including the series-winner at 5:09 of the second overtime, and had an assist in Game 7 of the Eastern Conference Final against the Ottawa Senators.
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Kunitz, 37, has four assists in the Stanley Cup Final, two in each game, to help stake the Penguins to a 2-0 lead in the best-of-7 series going into Game 3 at Bridgestone Arena on Saturday (8 p.m. ET; NBCSN, CBC, SN, TVA Sports).
"I was with Easton my whole life," Kunitz said, referring to the stick company he used before switching to Warrior. "They changed."
Easton moved its factory plant from Mexico to China last year. Prior to the move, Kunitz said he placed an order for enough sticks to get him through the Stanley Cup Final last year. He didn't know he'd play into the Cup Final last year, so he had to ensure he had enough.
But the new sticks he received at the start of this season, the ones manufactured in the Chinese plant, didn't feel the same as the ones he'd been using. They were heavier.
"So I've been searching for a new product," Kunitz said.
Video: OTT@PIT, Gm7: Kunitz buries feed to open scoring
He has finally found it, but Kunitz quickly shot down the notion he struggled to score during the regular season and even earlier in the playoffs because his stick wasn't right.
"It's definitely not the tools, it's the person holding them," he said. "I would never use that as an excuse."
But the stick issue might at least help explain why Kunitz had such a difficult time scoring this season.
He had 29 points (nine goals, 20 assists) in 71 games after back-to-back seasons of scoring 17 goals and finishing with 40 points.
Kunitz scored on 6.7 percent of his shots on goal this season, down from 11.3 percent last season. It was the first time he shot under 10 percent since 2009-10, when he scored on 9.9 percent of his shots in 50 games. His career shooting percentage, including this season, is 12.4 percent.
Clearly the change in equipment impacted him. Kunitz was moved up and down the lineup, from first line to fourth line, plus on and off the power play because of his inconsistent production.
"It's just an adjustment," Kunitz said. "I've been using different products throughout the year and something has been off. It's not been fun, trying to search for stuff, but that's not an excuse. Sticks are sticks. You go out and play the game."
One thing that has remained constant is Kunitz's playing style. He hasn't changed anything in the past three games, either.
He has forechecked hard, played with an edge, on the line, and occasionally has been caught going over it, as in Game 2, when he was penalized for cross-checking Predators defenseman P.K. Subban in the neck.
But now he's generating offense as well. Kunitz had seven points in his previous 38 games before producing seven points in the past three.
"I see all those same traits that he's been doing for so long, and maybe those plays are just going in this time instead of not," center Sidney Crosby said. "I think that's the biggest thing. Everyone tries to raise their game at this time of year, and he's a guy who is able to do that."
Historically in the playoffs, that is true. Kunitz is two victories away from winning the Stanley Cup for the fourth time in his career (2007, 2009, 2016). He has 90 points (27 goals, 63 assists) in 157 playoff games, including 21 in 40 games the past two springs with the Penguins.
But in the first two games against Nashville, he's already equaled his point total from his previous 15 Stanley Cup Final games. He had two assists in six games against the San Jose Sharks last season, two assists in seven games against the Detroit Red Wings in 2009 and no points in two games with the Anaheim Ducks against the Senators in 2007.
"I don't think it's happenstance," coach Mike Sullivan said about Kunitz's hot streak. "I just think it's an indication that he's a fierce competitor and he elevates his game when the stakes are high. At least in my experience of coaching him he's at his very best at this time of year. He did it last year for us and he's doing it again for us this year.
"I don't think it's by accident. I think he deserves a whole lot of credit for his performance throughout the course of this playoffs."
With a stick tap to his new stick too, of course.
"It feels pretty good," Kunitz said.