The Penguins earned one of their hardest-fought wins of the season Jan. 21 against the Flyers. Pittsburgh erased a 2-0 deficit after 20 minutes on the way to a 4-3 victory that continued the club's ascent up the standings.
But the win came with a price, as top-line left wing Chris Kunitz suffered an undisclosed injury that knocked him out of the lineup for the remainder of Pittsburgh's pre-All-Star Game schedule. Luckily for the Penguins, that ended up being just two games once a Jan. 24 visit to Washington was cancelled due to inclement weather in the Washington, D.C. region.
Despite the layoff, Kunitz was able to picked up right where he left off offensively – contributing a goal and two assists in the Pens’ 6-5 defeat of the Senators on Tuesday night.
“It took a little bit to feel comfortable with it,” Kunitz said after practice on Wednesday at UPMC Lemieux Sports Complex. “It’s nice that we had the start we did. We were kind of all over them and playing with the puck makes it a little bit easier to get back into the swing of things.”
Kunitz didn’t get off to the start he hoped to production-wise this season, as he posted just five goals in his first 36 games. But the 36-year-old has since rediscovered his scoring touch, as he’s been red-hot with four goals in his last six games along with four assists for a total of eight points.
“A lot of it is fed off of how well ‘Sid’ (Sidney Crosby) has been playing,” Kunitz said when asked what’s sparked his resurgence. “He is getting the points and generating all the positive touches with the puck and gives the rest of us a lot of space on the ice to put us in areas. It has pretty much been like that the whole time I’ve been here.”
Kunitz has spent a majority of the season on the left wing alongside usual linemate Crosby, who had a hat trick in the win over Ottawa. Patric Hornqvist returned to the right wing some time ago, and the trio’s familiarity with each other has attributed to their success as a line.
“There are definitely points on the ice when you don’t see a play but you just know that someone is going to be there in that area of the ice that you can put a puck to,” Kunitz explained. “Most of it’s reading and reacting and some tendencies, but it’s nice that you always have that little chemistry.”
Head coach Mike Sullivan has had the opportunity to not only coach Kunitz, but also coach against him, and he certainly appreciates the type of player he is.
“When I was coaching other teams and playing against him he was always one of those guys you wish you had on your team,” Sullivan said.
Aside from contributing to the team offensively, Kunitz is a vital member of the Pens lineup because he is a leader on the team. His commitment and work ethic bring a level of intensity to his game that his teammates can benefit from.
“I think he is a passionate guy,” Sullivan said. “He plays bigger than he is. He is physical. He gets involved with the body contact. He is another one of those guys I think that has the hockey IQ that he can play with top players and he brings an element of physicality and abrasiveness to the group that he plays with. His body of work I think speaks for itself as far as the type of player that he is.”