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X-Factor

Chris Kunitz provides Penguins with grit, big-play ability

Pittsburgh forward has fit in on top line, could be factor against Predators in Cup Final

by Wes Crosby / NHL.com Correspondent

PITTSBURGH -- There's a reason forward Chris Kunitz is continuously placed in prominent roles with the Pittsburgh Penguins.

It's partially because center Sidney Crosby enjoys playing alongside Kunitz. They've been teammates since the Anaheim Ducks traded Kunitz to Pittsburgh on Feb. 27, 2009, and at one time, were two-thirds of possibly the best line in the NHL, along with forward Pascal Dupuis.

Crosby's preference isn't the only reason, though. At any given moment, Kunitz could come through in a big way, as he did with two goals in a 3-2 double overtime win against the Ottawa Senators in Game 7 of the Eastern Conference Final.

Kunitz could have one last surprise against the Nashville Predators in the Stanley Cup Final, which begins with Game 1 at PPG Paints Arena on Monday (8 p.m. ET; NBC, CBC, SN, TVA Sports).

"You never know if you're going to play on this ice again with this team," Kunitz said. "So, you've got to make sure you make that last as long as you can."

Kunitz's numbers have fallen off considerably over the past three seasons.

After scoring 35 goals in 2013-14, he had 17 in the following two. This season, he scored nine goals, the fewest since he failed to score in 21 games as a rookie in 2003-04.

 

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After 13 NHL seasons, Kunitz, 37, is more than a step slower. Sometimes he struggles to keep up in a lineup structured around speed. Still, Crosby enjoys playing next to Kunitz, whose grit is welcome on the top line.

The first line needs more than grit, however. Kunitz wouldn't be put in that position if Crosby and Penguins coach Mike Sullivan thought he couldn't produce.

"I think he's got that knack for being a big-game player," Crosby said. "He does so many little things. Probably a lot of things go unnoticed."

Before Game 7 of the conference final, Kunitz hadn't scored since Feb. 16. That changed after he and forward Conor Sheary were elevated to Crosby's line in the second period.

Video: Chris Kunitz came up large for Pittsburgh in Game 7

Sheary set up Kunitz for his first goal in the second period before Crosby set up his second in the second overtime. Crosby brings out the best of those around him, which was evident against Ottawa.

If Kunitz plays with Crosby, even sporadically, he could have a resurgent series against Nashville. His addition to the top line would also allow Pittsburgh's speed to filter throughout its forward lines, with Jake Guentzel moving down and Carl Hagelin remaining in the bottom six.

Late in the conference final, Sullivan seemed to find success by pairing two agile forwards with one physical winger. In Game 7, that was Kunitz on the top line.

Forward Patric Hornqvist, who has missed the past six games with an upper-body injury, has also been in that position and could be again if healthy enough to return.

For now, though, Kunitz could give Crosby the hard-nosed presence he enjoys from one of his wingers. Kunitz might not be Pittsburgh's most proficient scorer, but he isn't shy about crashing the net, going to the dirty areas, taking a beating near the crease, digging out pucks and pestering goaltenders.

If Kunitz could give that to Crosby against Predators goalie Pekka Rinne, he could create several golden chances for his teammates, even if he's not the one who scores.

"I don't think it really matters who scores," Kunitz said after Game 7. "I think we're all just happy that the game's ended, and we're on the top side of it, that we get to go play for another Stanley Cup."

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