When head coach Dan Bylsma was asked Thursday night whether forward Chris Kunitz was underrated or not, he paused for a second before answering.
Bylsma may have flashed back to Kunitz’s two goals earlier Thursday evening, or any one of the team-leading 16 goals Kunitz scored this season.
“I don't think he is (underrated) anymore,” Bylsma said after gathering his thoughts. “His stats, his goals, they have been there. He has been on a top line for a number of years. With the goals he put up last year, I think he is a respected skill player.”
With his play of late, respect from Penguins teammates and coaches along with players around from around the league is starting to flow in.
“We try to do our thing out there, he is going to be battling hard around the net,” linemate Sidney Crosby said. “He finds ways to get his stick on the puck and get open. He is not the biggest guy but he finds ways to battle with some big defensemen. He is going to be there a lot and you love to see him score.”
Kunitz, 34, whose accolades are often overshadowed by his pair of superstar teammates in Crosby and NHL ‘Second Star’ for the month of November Evgeni Malkin, is currently riding a season-high, six-game point streak (5G-4A) headed into Boston Saturday night.
With goals No. 15 and 16 on Thursday, Kunitz also passed Crosby for the team lead in goals this season.
Those two markers also pulled Kunitz into a third-place tie with Corey Perry of Anaheim and Patrick Kane of Chicago for the league goal-scoring lead this season.
While Bylsma said Kunitz can no longer be considered underrated, the way he plays and creates opportunities for himself is different than most guys at or near the league lead in goals.
“I think what he does is under appreciated in terms of how he does it,” Bylsma said. “He is at the net front as well as anyone in the league, maybe one of the best with our power play in going there, driving there. He plays hard areas, hard minutes and does it the hard way.”
Kunitz only trails Alexander Steen (20 goals) of St. Louis, and Alexander Ovechkin (21) of Washington.
That leaves no Canadian forward (Perry is also Canadian) with more goals than Kunitz, and with the Olympics fast approaching it is something that Kunitz said he does keep an eye on.
“You do a little bit of checking and reading articles but all I can control is how I play,” the Regina, Saskatchewan-native said. “It would be a dream to be able to go and compete for my country in the Olympics.”
Kunitz was one of four Penguins, along with Crosby, James Neal and Kris Letang invited to Canadian Olympic Orientation Camp in August. Though he may be left out of some talks when discussing the best forward group to send to Sochi, his recent play and chemistry with Crosby is something that can no longer be ignored.
“It is (an advantage) having chemistry with ‘Sid’ and being able to play against other teams top lines a majority of the night and have some success,” Kunitz said. “We still have to get better, and limit those turnovers but we play with speed, which is something the international game is really going to be focusing on. Just try to go out and improve every day.”
Team Canada is set to announce their roster on Jan. 7.
“I know there are so many qualified players for Canada that it makes it tough,” Kunitz said. “You just have to put the right foot forward and show them what kind of game you can play and how you can help the team.”