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Decade Review: Chris Kunitz, Game 7 Hero

by Sam Kasan @PensInsideScoop / Pittsburgh Penguins

Sometimes the stories write themselves. And sometimes, they unwrite themselves.

Hobbled defenseman Justin Schultz, who missed the previous four games for Pittsburgh, gritted his teeth through the pain and suited up for the Penguins' monumental Game 7 winner-take-all contest against the Ottawa Senators in the 2017 Eastern Conference Final.

So, when Schultz ripped a snap shot on the power play off the post and in to give the Penguins a 2-1 lead with just 8:16 minutes remaining in regulation, I assumed that score would hold up to be the game-winner. And that Schultz would be the big story.

Tweet from @penguins: POWER-PLAY GOAL! SCHULTZ! BACK AND BETTER THAN EVER! The #Pens take the 2-1 lead with 8:16 left in the 3rd period. #PARTYHARD pic.twitter.com/3BnS9t3w8u

Overcoming the pain of injury and becoming the hero that lifted the Penguins into their second consecutive Stanley Cup Final.

The storyline was almost too easy. In fact, it was too easy.

Three minutes later, Ottawa's Erik Karlsson drilled a shot off the post and Ryan Dzingel pounced on the rebound to tie the game. The pesky Senators would not go quietly.

When the clock struck zero, a new hero was to be crowned. The next goal scorer would win the game, win the series and carry his team into the Stanley Cup Final.

There is nothing quite like an overtime in the NHL playoffs. Your nerves are completely fried and your heart rate accelerates with every shot. Amplify that by 100 and that's overtime in a Game 7 in the NHL playoffs.

Toss in what was at stake - the winner advancing to the Stanley Cup Final and the Penguins playing for history, attempting to become the first team in nearly two decades to repeat as champions - and you have the most intense cocktail of anxiety and adrenaline.

This contest lived up to the billing. 

The Penguins dominated the opening overtime, and came close on several occasions to ending the series. In fact, sniper Phil Kessel had a lot of those chances.

Kessel carried the puck down the near side with no one around him after catching the Senators in a line change, but his shot went wide far side of the post. Minutes later Brian Dumoulin nearly scored when Ottawa goaltender Craig Anderson appeared to be unset for a shot. Anderson, though, reacted at the last minute to get a pad down and kick the puck aside. Late in the overtime, Kessel swerved around a defender and cut to the net. The puck popped up into the air and rolled atop the net before falling down on the other side.

The Penguins outshot Ottawa, 8-2, in the opening overtime session. Both Ottawa shots were harmless and the bulk of the period was played in the Senators zone. Despite Pittsburgh's domination and scoring chances, the first overtime came and went scoreless.

The tension was palpable in the arena. No matter how good the Penguins were playing, it only took one fluky shot for their entire season to come crashing down.

Tweet from @penguins: And overtime will continue... Is everyone still with us? Is everyone remembering to breathe? pic.twitter.com/zMMTJqJxME

Pittsburgh struggled in the opening minutes of the second overtime period, and that thought certainly crept into the minds of the faithful in attendance. The Penguins didn't record their first shot until the 5:09 mark of the second overtime period.

It was the only shot they would need.

Schultz worked the puck to Crosby below the goal line. All five Senators on the ice collapsed to the net, giving the Penguins free rein in the zone. Chris Kunitz, who had scored the opening goal of the game, was all alone above the circle.

Crosby nudged a backhand pass to Kunitz, who one-timed a shot toward the net. The puck ended up on edge and floated, end over end, through the crowd of bodies and over the shoulder of Anderson.

Red light.

Buzzer.

Pandemonium.

The fans jumped to their feet. Screams reverberated inside the arena.

One by one, Kunitz was mobbed by his teammates until he disappeared into a black and gold sea of bodies. Kunitz, who hadn't scored a single goal since Feb. 16, scored twice and added an assist for points on all three Penguins' goals.

Video: OTT@PIT, Gm7: Kunitz wins series in double overtime

He was the unlikeliest of heroes. Kunitz had struggled at the end of the regular season and throughout the playoffs. But when the Penguins needed him most, the veteran came through for the biggest goal of his career.

Chris Kunitz: Game 7 hero.

From there it was on to the Stanley Cup Final, and repeat with history.

Tweet from @penguins: We have those #StanleyCup Final feels. pic.twitter.com/9tQCb8atbI

The Penguins were arguably the most successful NHL franchise over the last decade (2010-19). They made the playoffs every season while becoming the first team to win back-to-back Stanley Cups in nearly 20 years. The team provided many memorable moments over that 10-year span. In this Decade Review series website writers Sam Kasan and Michelle Crechiolo, who have been with the team the entire time, highlight the 10 storylines and moments that stand out to them from the past 10 years.

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