After forward Chris Kunitz missed two games against Philadelphia with a lower-body injury, he returned to the first line in Tuesday night’s 5-1 win against the Dallas Stars at CONSOL Energy Center. With the first line of he, Sidney Crosby and Lee Stempniak back in action, the trio combined for eight points and scored four of Pittsburgh’s five goals.
Crosby (2G-1A) opened the scoring for the Penguins a little over four minutes into the game after coming out onto the ice during a line change. He forced a turnover in front of the net and sent the puck backhanded into the top of the net.
“(Craig Adams) made a good play just to bump it to me and they had a bunch of guys that were caught in the corner and nobody in front,” Crosby said. “The puck was rolling, and I didn’t really want to shoot it if I didn’t have to. I had some time and kind of waited pretty long, but it was nice to see it go in.”
Just over nine minutes later, Kunitz (1G-1A) relished in his return to action. A Stempniak (1G-2A) shot bounced off of Stars goalie Kari Lehtonen’s pad and found its way to Kunitz, who shot it in for the eventual game winning goal.
The third goal from the Penguins came from Stempniak. Kunitz, who with his two points Tuesday equaled his career high of 61 points and now has a career high 32 goals, got the puck to Stempniak who flew towards the goal and managed to get the puck past Lehtonen before falling onto the ice. It was Stempniak’s first goal as a member of thePenguins at CONSOL Energy Center.
“It’s been a little while (since I’ve scored), so it’s nice to get a goal,” Stempniak said. “It was a great passing play, (Crosby) to (Kunitz) and I went to the net and it was on my tape right in front of the goalie, so it was a good play.”
Crosby said that the Penguins and the first line were glad Stempniak built on his goal chances throughout the game to come away with one tonight.
“He’s had some close calls and really good looks,” Crosby said. “That wasn’t an easy play at all and he made it look pretty easy. That’s big for him. He’s done a lot of good things. To see him finally get one was nice. We’re happy for him. It’s something we want to build off of.”
Crosby capped off the top line’s scoring a little under two minutes into the third period when he scored his second goal of the game and 33rd of the season. Stempniak dealt the puck over to Crosby. Crosby finished the job by nudging the puck over from his skate to his stick and tapping it in.
“I think some other lines generated some good offensive zone, pressure too. I think a lot of times when that happens, you’re playing against tired D, guys who get stuck out there,” Crosby said. “It helps, I think everyone needs to do that. Definitely tonight our line felt like we had some good jump, we were on pucks and got rewarded for it.”
This is the same first line that lost staple member Pascal Dupuis to a torn ACL on Dec. 23 against the Ottawa Senators. With Stempniak performing well, his presence on the first line for the remainder of the season seems more and more likely.
Stempniak said that the chemistry for this first line didn’t come quickly, but felt that tonight was his most comfortable performance with Crosby and Kunitz.
“I think we’re just trying to skate and not pass up shots when you have them,” Stempniak said. “I think it’s gotten better every game we’ve played together and (Crosby) is so dynamic, he opens up a lot. (Kunitz) has a great shot and it’s a pretty dangerous line with those two guys. For me it’s trying to fit in and skate and keep up and make sure I’m retrieving pucks and then getting open areas.”
At the end of the night, head coach Dan Bylsma was pleased with the first line’s performance and credited them for the tone of the win.
“We were looking for a response in this game and they set the tone right from the start with their play,” Bylsma said. “Sid (Crosby) led the way in that regard. Kunitz and Stempniak were a force in the offensive zone, hard to deal with, hard to play against and leading the charge. “
With his two points Tuesday, Kunitz equaled his career high of 61 points and has a career high 32 goals.