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Kunitz the Game 7 hero

by Michelle Crechiolo @PensInsideScoop / Penguins Team Reporter

Recently, Mike Sullivan praised Chris Kunitz for being such a terrific teammate and leader who will do whatever they ask and play any role they need him to.

On Thursday night at PPG Paints Arena, that role was Game 7 hero.

Kunitz factored in on all three goals in Pittsburgh's 3-2 win over the Ottawa Senators, scoring twice - including the double-overtime winner - and adding an assist to send the Pens to their second straight Stanley Cup Final, where they will face the Nashville Predators. 

Kunitz will be competing for the fourth championship of his career, having won in 2007 with Anaheim and both '09 and '16 with Pittsburgh. His pedigree is something his teammates marvel at, and something a lot of them pointed to when talking about his performance tonight.

"It's awesome," Conor Sheary said. "He has three Cups for a reason. He's a leader and he's a great player and tonight was just the result of hard work. That was a great game out of him."

Sidney Crosby couldn't be happier for Kunitz, who joined Darius Kasparaitis as the only players in franchise history to score an overtime goal in Game 7.

"He was huge," Crosby said with a smile. "I think he's got that knack for being a big-game player and he does so many little things probably a lot of things go unnoticed. But I don't think those two goals will go unnoticed. Huge one in overtime there to get us moving on."

For the start of the game, Sullivan placed Kunitz on the fourth line with Sheary and Matt Cullen - and those three combined to open the scoring 9:55 into the second period. The play began when Cullen won a defensive-zone faceoff and got the puck up to Sheary, who went off on a 2 on-1 with Kunitz that they were able to finish off.

However, throughout the course of the game, Sullivan double-shifted Crosby with Kunitz and Sheary. And with some of Crosby's best shifts coming with those two during the first part of the game, Sullivan and his staff decided to make the switch permanent.

And fittingly enough, Kunitz's longtime linemate and teammate Crosby set him up for the score that will live forever in Pens history.

"I was just trying to get into a soft spot," Kunitz explained. "The puck fluttered off my stick. I don't know if it touched him or kept going right by. It looked like there was a good screen on the goalie, looked like he fell down. Just found its way into the net. Sometimes you get lucky when you put one on net."

When asked to describe his emotions after scoring such a huge goal, Kunitz admitted there was excitement but then deflected credit to all of his teammates for the parts they played in putting him in that position.

"I don't think it really matters who scores," Kunitz said. "I think we're all just happy that the game's ended and we're on the top side of it. We get to go play for another Stanley Cup. I think it's something that it takes work by everybody on the ice to be able to score a goal or make a play that could be a different point in the game that opens up ice for you. That's something our whole team is part of.

"So it's nice to contribute, but we know it's a team game and we're all going to have to pull our weight at some point."

Kunitz did, however, take a moment to reflect on just how special this postseason has been so far for him. At 37 years old, the veteran winger is getting older and his production has dropped off as he had nine goals in 71 games during the regular season, while these tallies were his first of the playoffs.

As of now, Kunitz will be an unrestricted free agent when the season ends. But while he's unsure of what the future holds, he's not thinking about that just yet. Right now, he's thinking about the present and the opportunity this team has right here and right now.

"Never knowing if you're going to get another chance to come this far, never knowing if you're going to play on this ice again with this team, you've got to make sure you make that last as long as you can," said Kunitz, who has spent the last eight-plus seasons in Pittsburgh.

"It's not a lot of fun thinking about the future when you want to be here and you want to be playing with your teammates. Sometimes it comes down to luck for a goal going against you and your season's over. So I'm happy that it's not over for us yet and we have another challenge in front of us and a chance to win another Cup."

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