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Kunitz shooting for Cup, exclusive company with Lightning in playoffs

Forward can become second NHL player to win it for fifth time, with third team

by Amalie Benjamin @AmalieBenjamin / NHL.com Staff Writer

TAMPA -- Chris Kunitz can remember it vividly. There he was, an undrafted player in his third NHL season, on the verge of winning the Stanley Cup. He had been there four years earlier when the Mighty Ducks of Anaheim lost the Stanley Cup Final to the New Jersey Devils in 2003, had watched as a "Black Ace" and wondered if his time might ever come.

 

[RELATED: Complete Lightning vs. Capitals series coverage]

 

Now it was happening. The Anaheim Ducks led the Ottawa Senators 6-2 in Game 5 of the 2007 Final and began to realize their dreams.

Kunitz remembers well-traveled forward Brad May, 15 years into his NHL career, sitting beside him on the bench.

"The clock is counting down," Kunitz said. "Shift after shift, and [I remember] how excited his face looked, shaking everybody beside him because he had such a long, rough career, that it took that long to find a time to win."

Kunitz has watched teammates go through that moment over and over, players who have waited their whole careers to finally touch the Cup, which has his name written all over it. Literally. 

The forward, 38, has won the Stanley Cup three more times since then, with the Pittsburgh Penguins in 2009, 2016 and 2017. He has a chance this season not only for a personal three-peat with the Tampa Bay Lightning, but also to become the second player in NHL history to win the Cup at least five times and with three different teams. Should the Lightning win the Cup, Kunitz would join defenseman Larry Hillman, who won the Cup six times with three teams.

To that end, the Lightning will try to win Game 4 of the Eastern Conference Final at the Washington Capitals on Thursday (8 p.m. ET; NBCSN, CBC, SN, TVAS). The Lightning trail the best-of-7 series 2-1. 

Video: Breaking down Game 3 of the Eastern Conference Final

Those who have won the Cup multiple times have often belonged to a dynasty or two, like Henri Richard and his 11 championships with the Montreal Canadiens, or Jean Beliveau and his 10 with Montreal, or Red Kelly and his eight between the Detroit Red Wings (four) and Toronto Maple Leafs (four).

But it takes luck or talent or a combination of the two to find that kind of success with multiple teams across multiple years, as Kunitz has with the Ducks, essentially two versions of the Penguins (who had five players win all three times) and, potentially, the Lightning.

It's something that Hillman is familiar with. He won the Cup the first time with the Red Wings in 1955 at 18 years, 68 days old, the youngest player ever to win the Cup, on a team that boasted Hockey Hall of Famers Gordie Howe, Ted Lindsay and Kelly. He followed that up by winning four championships with the Maple Leafs (1962, '63, '64 and '67) and one with the Canadiens (1969).

"I was always on the right team at the right time," Hillman, 81, said Wednesday of his 789-game NHL career with eight teams. "Just fortunate.

"I sometimes joke about it: 'I wasn't that much of a hockey player, but a hell of a good luck charm.'"

There's that. But there's something more, too. It's the experience and the knowledge, the discipline and the understanding and the positive attitude, all things that Hillman said he believed he brought to his teams that won the Cup. 

"[Those players], they're the ones that know, when they get into the playoffs, what needs to be done," said Hillman, who also won the Avco Cup twice in the World Hockey Association with the Winnipeg Jets, in 1976 as a player and in 1978 as a coach.

Those are the players that win, and win, and win, the few who have won the Stanley Cup at least three times with three teams: Mike Keane (Canadiens, Dallas Stars, Colorado Avalanche), Claude Lemieux (Canadiens, Devils twice, Avalanche), Joe Nieuwendyk (Stars, Calgary Flames, Devils), Gord Pettinger (Boston Bruins, New York Rangers, Red Wings twice) and Mark Recchi (Bruins, Penguins, Carolina Hurricanes), in addition to Hillman and Kunitz.

"It's not a coincidence that this guy ends up winning Cups and going deep in the playoffs on every team he's been with," Lightning coach Jon Cooper said of Kunitz. "You should hear him on the bench. He just sees the ice. He talks the game through before it's about to happen to the players, some of the guys on the bench. … He's really, really aware of what's going on in the game."

Because, well, he's been here before, and seen just about every situation, winning the Cup in all four trips to the Final and reaching seven conference finals.

"Experience is huge," Tampa Bay forward Tyler Johnson said. "And he's a guy that has boatloads of it.

"He's just that calm voice when things start to go awry."

Video: Hedman on penalty kill in Lightning's Game 3 win

Not that he's willing to hazard a guess on why he's been in the right place at the right moment so many times, why he's been a component of the teams that keep winning. He sounded like Hillman when he said, "I'm fortunate throughout my career to play with a lot of really good players, got to organizations as they were starting to almost peak.

"I think it's just been the opposite of unlucky, I guess."

He knows what it's like to lose a Stanley Cup Final. He saw it once, so long ago, before he was officially a member of an NHL team. He has not been on a team that has lost one since.  

"I got to watch the unfortunate side of losing a Game 7, two brothers playing against each other, the one that was on our team that hadn't had any success, the brother on the other side that had lots," Kunitz said of Rob and Scott Niedermayer facing off in 2003. (Scott helped the Devils win the Cup for the third time that year, then joined his brother and won it with the Ducks in 2007.) 

"I think that always kind of resonated with me. That even though you're fortunate to win, it's not something that [always] happens for guys in their careers."

But it has happened for Kunitz, as a top-line player and a role player, as a player who scored 14 points (one goal, 13 assists) in 24 games in the 2009 playoffs in helping Pittsburgh win the Cup, and one who has scored zero points in 13 games in these playoffs but whose line has matched up often against Alex Ovechkin's. 

"He's not the captain of our team," Cooper said of Kunitz, who had 29 points (13 goals, 16 assists) this season. "Steven Stamkos is the captain of our team, but Steven Stamkos also needs somebody to lean on the odd time as well and Chris Kunitz has become one of those guys. … So it's not only about Kunitz on the ice, but what he's done off the ice for us. He's been remarkable."

It's why Stamkos got excited when he realized that the Lightning had signed Kunitz to a one-year contract July 1. He knew what Kunitz had done in his NHL career. He knew what Kunitz could mean for the Lightning and for him personally. 

"Guys were excited just to get a chance to talk to him and pick his brain, just the information he has from playing with some great teams and some great leaders and some great players," Stamkos said.

"Hopefully we can get him No. 5 this year. That'd be fun."

 

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