Heading into the All-Star break, the Pittsburgh Penguins were looking to bump their winning streak to seven games against a red-hot St. Louis Blues team that was 21-3-4 on home ice. 65 minutes of hockey and the standard three-round shootout wasn’t enough to decide a winner in the chess match between Penguins coach Dan Bylsma and Blues boss Ken Hitchcock.
In the fourth shootout round, Marc-Andre Fleury stopped the Blues’ Alex Pietrangelo and Bylsma turned to Chris Kunitz, who was appearing in his 500th career game. Kunitz made a nifty deke to the backhand, fired the puck past Brian Elliott, and turned the corner with a smile, expecting his teammates to mob him in celebration.
Instead, the smile quickly turned to a straight face. Kunitz put his head down and skated the length of the ice to join the rest of his team as they gathered around their goaltender.
Fleury certainly made some outstanding saves to put the Penguins in position to prevail in the shootout, but Kunitz is getting used to others getting the attention as he puts together perhaps his most effective season as a pro.
Those that know him best won’t let you ignore his contributions though. His linemates, Evgeni Malkin and James Neal, are among the top five goal-scorers in the NHL this season and both attended the All-Star Game two weeks ago in Ottawa. When Malkin was asked recently about his chemistry with Neal, he ignored the question and instead sung the praises of Kunitz.
“Not just James Neal,” Malkin said. “I like to play with Chris Kunitz too. He has great speed and works hard every game and we play good as a line.”
Kunitz has just one even-strength goal in his last 22 games, but Penguins coach Dan Bylsma said if you’re looking for evidence of Kunitz’s effective play, you won’t find it in the box score.
“Chris Kunitz maybe isn’t the flashiest first-line player in the league,” Bylsma said, “but with him there’s speed, there’s grit, as well as a net-front presence and a lot to his game that doesn’t necessarily get on the scoresheet. He does some his best work in and around the net. It’s not flash and skill, but it’s grit and determination.”
Kunitz, who leads all Penguins forwards with 127 hits, assumes the role of Detroit’s Tomas Holmstrom on the Malkin-Neal line by digging pucks out of the corner and causing havoc in front of opposing goaltenders.
Forwards rarely beat goaltenders on unscreened shots in today’s NHL. The key to Malkin and Neal’s goal scoring this season has been Kunitz’s willingness to absorb the punishment that comes with standing in front of the net.
“Kunitz goes in front and takes the vision away from the goalie for a split second and I get a chance to shoot it,” said Neal, whose 29 goals this season is already a career high.
“We’re playing as a line and ‘Kuni’ does those things that go unnoticed every night,” Neal said. “He battles so hard for loose pucks and is so hard to play against. He opens up a lot of space for myself and Geno and sometimes that goes unnoticed.”
On the defensive end of the ice, another assistant captain is dishing out the net-front punishment Kunitz is used to receiving.
Brooks Orpik leads the Penguins with 169 hits, despite missing eight games to start the season, and Boston’s Daniel Paille learned first-hand last week how difficult Orpik can be to play against:
Orpik brings a physical presence to a Penguins defensive group that sometimes lacks that element, but his greatest value to the team might be the effect he has on defensive partner Kris Letang.
Letang is at his best when he’s free to utilize his skating abilities. Orpik’s reliability on defense gives Letang the confidence to attack opposing forwards and also lead or join offensive rushes up ice.
On Saturday afternoon against the Winnipeg Jets, watch as Letang (58) immediately takes off up the ice on a turnover that eventually leads to his sixth goal of the year:
Orpik has also become de facto leader of the Penguins amidst Sidney Crosby‘s absences over the last two seasons.
When the Penguins slipped into a lengthy losing streak in January, Orpik was the first player to demand accountability from his teammates.
As the Penguins pushed to come back from a 3-1 deficit to New Jersey on Jan. 7, Evgeni Malkin took a third period penalty that caused Orpik to snap to reporters after the game. Orpik told Josh Yohe at the Pittsburgh Tribune-Review that senseless penalties late in games had to stop:
“No accountability,” Orpik said. “We gave up another short-handed goal. We give up breakaways. Another dumb penalty. The accountability has got to be a lot better.”
Although General Manager Ray Shero probably told Orpik that comments like that are best said in the locker room and not to the media, Orpik backed up his words with 17 hits over the next two games and was the most dominant player on the ice in both games. He brought a determined attitude into the room and may have helped save the Penguins from a more disastrous slide down the standings.
The Penguins followed up their season-long six-game losing streak with a stretch of 8 straight wins, but Orpik insists that consistency will be the key to the Penguins success this season.
“I think when you’re on a losing streak, it just seems like you hit posts or miss open nets or if you make a mistake it’s in the back of your net,” he said. “When you’re on those winning streaks, you’re getting a lucky goal off a skate or something. You just have to control your effort and make sure you have the same effort every single night.”
As the Penguins head down the stretch, Malkin, Neal, Letang, and maybe even Crosby will continue to get the attention from around the hockey world. But it’s the consistent hard work of players like Kunitz and Orpik that win games in the playoffs, even if it doesn’t always show up on the scoresheet.
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