The line of Chris Kunitz
, Evgeni Malkin
and James Neal
combined for a goal and four assists in the Penguins’ 4-2 win over Carolina on Tuesday.
It was yet another outstanding performance for Pittsburgh’s top trio as all three players recorded at least one point for the fifth straight game. The line has been producing at a torrid pace, as Malkin, Neal and Kunitz rank 1-2-3, respectively, in team scoring.
“Malkin is so good with the puck and does so many good things,” Neal said. “ I try to find an opening to shoot. Kunitz has great skill and goes to the net very well. We feed off each other and use each other out there. It’s worked out really well.”
Malkin is tied for second in the NHL with 42 points (15G-27A) while Neal is tied for third with 21 goals, just one behind leaders Steven Stamkos and Marian Gaborik. The two Penguins each have eight-game point streaks – the longest simultaneous scoring streaks between teammates in the NHL this season.
But Kunitz has been quietly playing perhaps the best hockey of his career, as he’s on a career-best (tied) five-game point stretch where he’s piled up three goals and five assists over that span.
Kunitz prides himself on forechecking hard, going in straight lines to the puck and just being a physical, tenacious presence in tough areas. As head coach Dan Bylsma explained, he’s done that and more.
“The one thing that Chris Kunitz
brings to our team and has done playing with Crosby and Malkin is creating havoc with his speed and physicality going to the net,” Bylsma said. “James Neal
fits in with his speed. He creates a lot of turnovers. He hunts pucks down and is a smart player that compliments good players. He goes to the net. He’s around the net.
Kunitz’ muscle and Neal’s finishing ability (and willingness to just shoot the puck) have proven to be the perfect compliment for the elite skillset of Malkin.
“Both of those guys are doing a good job of being at the net and in spots, complimenting the puck protection and plays that Malkin is making,” Bylsma said.
The trio has been together since Dec. 10 vs. NY Islanders, a 6-3 Penguins victory, but Neal has essentially been playing alongside Malkin since training camp – and the winger credits his centerman for setting him up with many of his opportunities.
“From Day 1 with Malkin, he’s a special player,” Neal said. “He does so many things so well. When he has the puck with speed he’s really dangerous. I just try to get open and put myself in a position to score. He does a great job of finding me.”
Their success has been driving the Penguins over the team's four-game winning streak, but the players aren't taking any of it for granted. They still put in their due diligence to stay on the same page, and that won’t change as long as they’re still together.
“We work in practice every day,” Malkin said. “We talk a lot and we work. We know how to play together. We played a lot of games already together and we know what we do. We know where I skate, where those guys skate. Of course it helps.”