Notice the constant variable?
Forget Malkin and Crosby. Maybe Kunitz is the best player in the NHL. OK, that may be going a bit far, but Kunitz’s role in their success shouldn’t be overlooked.
And finally, Kunitz is sharing a little bit of the limelight. He’s in the midst of his best career NHL season, and at the youthfully, exuberant age of 33.
Want proof? Take a look at the league’s leader board. Kunitz ranks:
No. 3 in points with 36 (one behind second-place Steven Stamkos).
No. 2 (tied) in goals with 17 (two behind league leader Stamkos).
No. 1 in plus-minus rating with a positive 21.
If the Penguins were playing a normal 82-game season, Kunitz would be on pace for 54 goals, 60 assists and 114 points.
“I just try to do my job, go to the net, go to those areas,” Kunitz said. “The puck seems to be finding me right now.”
The puck found Kunitz three times Sunday night in Pittsburgh’s 6-1 victory against the New York Islanders at CONSOL Energy Center.
Penguins fans celebrated Kunitz’s fourth-career hat trick – and second this season –by throwing out that evening’s promotional giveaway: monkey sock puppets. No, seriously.
“Giveaway night seems like a hot night to get hat tricks on this team,” Kunitz said with a monkey grin.
Consider this: In the Penguins’ storied history of world-class talent, how many players have caused monkey sock puppets to rain down on the ice? Mario Lemieux? No. Jaromir Jagr? Nope. Crosby? Malkin? Negative.
Only Kunitz has managed the feat.
And he accomplished the monkey trick by scoring in the area he knows best. Kunitz has earned his reputation for annexing the land around the goaltender’s crease. And it was in those areas that he connected for not one, not two, but all three of his goals against the Islanders.
“You just try to find an area that’s successful,” he said. “I didn’t have to shoot a puck. I had two right in the crease and one on a rebound.”
And what’s been remarkable about his recent scoring outburst isn’t just the quantity, but the quality. Kunitz has been a threat to score from all over the ice, not just in the crease area. He’s been burying one-timers from the high slot and perimeter.
However, against the Islanders he was back to his old self, scoring from close range, much to the relief of his head coach.
“I told him after the first two goals I was happy to see him score that close to the net so I wouldn’t have to answer questions about him scoring goals from farther out,” Dan Bylsma joked. “Right now he’s finding the back of the net over and over again. We’re going to let him do that.”
But Kunitz wasn’t satisfied with just finding the back of the net three times. Oh no. He added two assists in the game for a new career-high five-point night.
And if it weren’t for that pesky Crosby tying a personal career high with five assists, Kunitz could have gained some ground in the NHL’s scoring race against his linemate (Crosby has an NHL-best 45 points).
If he can’t catch Crosby, I guess he’ll just have to settle instead for filling the net like a barrel full of (sock puppet) monkeys.
“We’re having a lot of fun,” Kunitz said. “When you come back to the bench smiling, that’s a good thing.”
Kunitz has been smiling a lot lately.