The New Jersey Devils made a big splash last week when they shipped three players and a draft pick to Atlanta in a megadeal which netted them sniper Ilya Kovalchuk. However, they weren’t the only team fighting for the top spot in the Atlantic Division to add a first-line winger into the lineup over the past few days.
When the Penguins took on the Washington Capitals on Sunday at Verizon Center they did so with a familiar face rejoining the top line with Sidney Crosby
and Bill Guerin. Chris Kunitz
, who sat out 15 games following abdominal surgery, was back in action for the first time since Jan. 3, allowing the Penguins to add a three-time 20-goal scorer to the equation just in time for the stretch run.
“It felt really good,” Kunitz said. “Obviously it was a big game which was a lot more intense than some other regular-season games. That game had a real atmosphere to it so it was nice to be back out there.”
Getting Kunitz back onto the ice was definitely great news for the Penguins as they get set to host a three-game homestand at Mellon Arena, beginning with a tilt against the New York Islanders on Wednesday, before the league takes a two-week break for players to represent their countries in the 2010 Olympic Games in Vancouver.
When you miss as much time as Kunitz did – five weeks in this case – perhaps the most important factor when a player returns, besides the injury healing all the way, is getting back up to speed. Kunitz hopes to use the three games prior to the break to help get back into game shape.
The first couple of shifts felt pretty good. It lets your body know and relaxes your mind that you are healthy and you can be back. - Chris Kunitz
“There was a little excitement and jump right of the bat (on Sunday),” Kunitz said. “But, it’s one of those things where it takes you a few games to get back to the speed of the game. Obviously that was a good, intense game which had a great atmosphere.”
Kunitz was a huge factor helping to create such an atmosphere as he and his line with Crosby and Guerin came out flying against Washington – taking the body and forcing turnovers thanks to their forecheck.
“It didn’t take long for him to get back in there,” Crosby said. “He was physical right from the start. His health is there so it’s nice to get him back. He brings a lot to our team.”
Kunitz said getting into the game early was something he wanted to see from himself.
“You want to do something – either get hit, make a hit or get a shot on net or do something that gets you back into the game,” he said. “The first couple of shifts felt pretty good. It lets your body know and relaxes your mind that you are healthy and you can be back.”
Kunitz was happy with the way the Penguins began the game – they took leads of 2-0 and 4-1 thanks to a pair of goals from Crosby and Jordan Staal
– especially since his line was such a huge reason the Penguins jumped out to such advantages, but he was disappointed Pittsburgh allowed Washington to storm back and secure a 5-4 victory in overtime.
“We played well,” he said. “Sid scored some big goals for us and then Geno (Evgeni Malkin
) and Staalsy chipped in with some nice passes and goals to put us ahead. We have to learn to play with the lead. They are a dangerous team. They have scored the most goals in the league for a reason. They have threats all over the ice. … It was a great game but we have to learn to protect leads better.”
While the final outcome didn’t end up in the Penguins’ favor, Kunitz and Guerin agreed that having the hard-hitting winger back in the fold allows the Penguins’ top line to regain that chemistry which was paramount in the team’s run to a Stanley Cup championship in 2009.
“Obviously the chemistry you try to get back,” Kunitz said. “Just knowing where guys are going on the ice or making those passes. That just comes from practices and games and things like that. … Hopefully by the playoffs we are all hitting our stride and doing what we need to do to win another championship.”
“I think that would be an ideal situation,” Guerin said. “We are just going to work at it every day and hopefully peak at the right time.”
Once the unit does get back to clicking on all cylinders, Crosby knows what skills Kunitz will bring to the trio.
“He is strong on the puck and he has great speed so he can get there to make those big hits,” Crosby said. “I think everyone has seen a number of those since he has been with our team.
“Besides his physical presence he has hands. He is strong around the net and he goes to the net. I think he can make plays like that. He is really a complete player. He is not the biggest guy, but he plays bigger than he is.”
If Kunitz goes strong to the net and plays like he did down the stretch least season for the Penguins, when he notched 18 points (7G-11A) in 20 games after arriving from Anaheim in exchange for Ryan Whitney, the Penguins will have added a high-scoring winger of their own into the lineup.