When the Penguins acquired left wing Chris Kuntz just nine games ago, no one was prepared for the immediate influence he would have on the team’s chase for the playoffs.
In fact, the Penguins haven’t lost in regulation since acquiring Kunitz from Anaheim on Feb. 26. Kunitz has collected 11 points in nine contests with the Penguins (5G-6A), including his stellar performance against the Eastern Conference-leading Boston Bruins Sunday afternoon. Not only did Kunitz score two goals and an assist in Pittsburgh’s 6-4 victory over Boston, but he also tallied four hits in the game.
“Part of my game is trying to be physical,” Kunitz said.
The 6-foot, 195-pound forward fears no one on the ice. Not even Boston giant, 6-foot-9, 250-pound Zdeno Chara (the biggest player in the NHL), who Kunitz took on twice in the game.
“It doesn’t really matter who it was,” Kunitz said. “You have to jump and get up on him. You just go and finish your check and come back. Maybe sometimes (Chara) isn’t expecting to get hit but that’s part of my game.”
That’s just the Kunitz way - go hard to the net, fight for pucks and play physical hockey. Oh, and score a few goals when it counts.
“(Kunitz) was a presence out there with his physical play,” interim head coach Dan Bylsma said. “I have to think that a few of (Boston’s) players were looking over their shoulders, and that’s what Kunitz does.
He’s a bulldog out there and he goes hard to the corners and he goes to the net. That’s Chris Kunitz’s game. That’s what we can expect from him when he’s playing a great game and he certainly delivered. - Dan Bylsma
“He’s a bulldog out there and he goes hard to the corners and he goes to the net. That’s Chris Kunitz
’s game. That’s what we can expect from him when he’s playing a great game and he certainly delivered.”
A big part of Kunitz’s success has been his chemistry on the top line with Sidney Crosby
and Bill Guerin. The trio has been so successful that it’s difficult to believe they have only played six games together. In those contests Crosby, Guerin and Kunitz have combined for a total of 25 points (8G-17A).
“I’m still trying to get used to playing with new linemates,” Kunitz said. “It’s pretty overwhelming at first, but I think when I do things right and try to find my game and don’t try to get too over-offensive - just go in straight lines - that kind of helps me and benefits my game.”
Whatever Kunitz’s game is, it’s getting the job done for Pittsburgh. For one thing, he has a presence in front of the net. He deflected in his first goal of the game from atop the crease. He also provided a screen for Sergei Gonchar to sneak a shot through and into the goal for another Penguins’ score.
“He’s there causing havoc in the paint,” Bylsma said.
Kunitz has a knack for being in the right place at the right time. His scoring ability, combined with his gritty style of play is precisely what the Penguins need.
“He’s a gritty player and this time of the year that’s what you need,” captain Sidney Crosby
said. “You need that grit from everybody, but to step up in all those different ways, that’s definitely the way you need to lead, so Kunitz did a great job.”
Kunitz’s scored his second goal when he blocked a shot in the Penguins zone and ended up with the puck. He passed it out to Guerin in the neutral zone and then skated ahead of Boston’s defense. Guerin dished the puck back to Kunitz who was able to beat Bruins netminder Tim Thomas for the point.
“That was a good pass from Billy,” Kunitz said. “But I think the hook on the hands helped me a little, and kind of got me away from the goalie and then I split it back and went five-hole.”
It looked like Kunitz earned a hat trick in the game because the goal that Gonchar scored from the point initially looked like it may have deflected in off of Kunitz. However, after the game the goal was credited to Gonchar but Kunitz wasn’t bothered by the change.
“As long as we get the two points I’m happy,” Kunitz said.>
Against the Bruins, Mathieu Garon made his first start in net for Pittsburgh since Jan. 31 at Toronto. He hasn't played a game since Feb. 22 at Washington.
"For the first half of the game maybe I was a little bit rusty but towards the end I was feeling a little better," he said. "It’s tough. You get to think a little bit too much some times. I just wanted to go onto the ice and get the first shot and unfortunately it was a goal. But I think after that I tried to relax and wait for the next shot."
Garon made 21 saves against Boston to knock off the top team in the Eastern Conference.
"I think it’s great to get that confidence from the coach," Garon said. "We are playing one of the top teams in the league. I think we have to win pretty much all of our games until the end of the season but I think it’s good to be part of the team and contribute and get a win here."Sam Kasan contributed to this report