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Kunitz Could Unlock Secrets to Beating Red Wings

by Staff Writer / Pittsburgh Penguins
PITTSBURGH -- The last time the Detroit Red Wings lost a playoff series, Chris Kunitz was a part of the Anaheim Ducks' Western Conference Finals championship team that beat them and went on to win the 2007 Stanley Cup.

So, it's only right that Kunitz, now a member of the Pittsburgh Penguins, speak about what his new team has to do to recover from an 0-2 start to the Red Wings this year's Final.

A story of determination

Chris Kunitz always has been one of my favorite stories, going undrafted, but signed by the Ducks after a marvelously productive four years at Ferris State University.

After getting a brief opportunity at Anaheim in the 2003-04 season, he was sent back to Cincinnati of the American Hockey League, where he put up great numbers in two-straight seasons. Then, he was shocked to learn that the Atlanta Thrashers put in a waiver claim on him. He played two games with the Thrashers, in fact, before they tried to send him down to the minors Anaheim reclaimed him on waivers. Only this time he was back in the NHL with the Ducks to stay.

"My road to the NHL has been kind of a work in progress," Kunitz said. "Growing up, coaches and scouts always said I was too small to make it at the next level. My goal ever since elementary school was to get a college scholarship, go play college hockey and get an education. From there, it turned into having a great team, having success individually and team success, and from that the dream grew."

He followed his older brother, David, who matriculated to college via a soccer scholarship. At Ferris State, Chris wound up becoming the CCHA Player of the Year at Ferris State in 2002-03, being named a first team NCAA West All-American and was a finalist for the 2003 Hobey Baker Award, given to the U.S. College Player of the Year.

Said Kunitz, "It wasn't until I started playing well at the college level that scouts started to come around. And, even though I wasn't drafted, I started to become comfortable with the idea that there might be something in pro hockey for me after college. I began to visualize the success I could have when I looked around and saw that the Ducks had another undrafted free agent like Andy McDonald playing big situations and big minutes."

-- Larry Wigge
"Great style. Great players. A team driven to success for a couple of decades now," Kunitz said of the Wings. "I wouldn't want to say we felt we were home free after we beat them in 2007, but they were our toughest opponent in that playoff run.

"And nothing has changed in the way they play, the way they win. It's always a challenge to face the Red Wings. But if we can pick up the pace and force them to play our game in Pittsburgh, then we can get back into this series."

When the 29-year-old winger from Regina, Saskatchewan, takes time to smell the roses, he talks changes -- like how some things are destined to remain the same while others simply have to change.

Kunitz was talking about how the Wings' style of puck possession, hard work and discipline has transcended a couple decades of changes in the NHL, never seeming to change. But his own personal life, which he thought was just as secure in Anaheim, changed dramatically just before the trade deadline in early March, when Chris wound up leaving the Ducks after parts of five seasons and a Stanley Cup run to go to Pittsburgh in a trade with prospect Eric Tangradi for defenseman Ryan Whitney.

"You begin to think you've got security at one place and then boom, new city, new coach, new everything, a completely fresh plate," a still surprised Kunitz said the other day. "What complicated matters is that Maureen, my wife, was 34 or 35 weeks pregnant at the time. You worry about how the changes are going to affect her, your new child, everything. It was very emotional -- like a roller-coaster ride for a few days there.

"But after I got to the locker room, the guys were great. They had a baby shower for my wife and, most important, a long winning streak helped ease the shock and made both of us more comfortable that everything was going to work out."

The changes for Kunitz were immediate and for the better. The Penguins were on the road when Chris arrived. He got to meet the guys, go out to dinner with them. Bond. He really only knew Petr Sykora and Maxime Talbot from earlier in his career.

Although Kunitz now has just one goal in 19 playoff games to go along with 11 assists -- that goal coming in Game 2 of Pittsburgh's sweep of Carolina in the Eastern Conference Finals -- he had 7 goals and 11 assists in 20 games after arriving in that trade from Southern California. Most important, he was a key contributor in Anaheim's Cup triumph in 2007 over Ottawa, with 25 goals and 35 assists in the regular season and another 1 goal and 5 assists in 13 games in the playoffs while playing on a line with Ryan Getzlaf and Corey Perry when he was healthy.

Don't look at the statistics alone to see what Kunitz is doing for the Penguins.

"Chris Kunitz is a guy who will end up on the score sheet," said Penguins coach Dan Bylsma. "But his role is straight-line, aggressive, go-to-the-net hockey. We want him to be physical. If things aren't going well for him, he should always make sure he returns to that foundation."

"And nothing has changed in the way they play, the way they win. It's always a challenge to face the Red Wings. But if we can pick up the pace and force them to play our game in Pittsburgh, then we can get back into this series." - Chris Kunitz
Kunitz smiled when he heard that description from his coach and said, "I pride myself on being a blue-collar worker. If I don't hit and go to the net and bang some opponents then I'm not trying hard enough. If any of those things is missing from my game, I usually get uptight and hit and bang a little harder."

And that's the main strength of his game -- hard work, character and a winning attitude.

Said Kunitz, "Things were great after I got to know the guys in Pittsburgh -- and I've felt a little like I was in heaven since the morning of Game 1 of the first round of the playoffs against Philadelphia, when our new son, Zachary, arrived."

The changes in Chris Kunitz' life and in hockey going from Anaheim to Pittsburgh were immediately upbeat. A win in Game 3 on Tuesday would keep that upbeat feeling going for Kunitz and the Penguins.

Author: Larry Wigge | Columnist

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