Todays SlapShot

May 20, 2016: Chris Kunitz (14) of the Pittsburgh Penguins scores the third goal of the third period for the Penguins to make the score 3-4 in favor of the Lightning during the fourth game of the 2016 Eastern Conference Finals game between the Pittsburgh Penguins and the Tampa Bay Lightning at Amalie Arena in Tampa, FL. (Photograph by Roy K. Miller/Icon Sportswire)
Pittsburgh Penguins

Chris Kunitz reasserting his importance during Penguins’ run

If there’s one aspect of the Pittsburgh Penguins’ game that has allowed them to find success this spring – aside from blinding speed – it’s their offensive depth.

The club boasts four strong scoring lines, allowing them to exploit certain defensive match-ups and launch a consistent offensive push. The central aspect of that diverse attack has been different members of Pittsburgh’s forward corps stepping up at different key moments. While Bryan Rust has been the story over the past few games, another member of his line arguably played a bigger role in pushing Pittsburgh past Tampa Bay.

Chris Kunitz’s tenure with the Penguins has been an interesting one, to say the least.

Given the plum assignment of riding shotgun with Sidney Crosby for much of his time in Pittsburgh, the veteran has heard it all – questions of whether or not he deserves to be in the Penguins’ top-six, whether he’s still able to cut it at the NHL level, et cetera, et cetera.

Even in these playoffs, criticism has been repeatedly directed towards Kunitz, with some questioning whether he should remain in the lineup.

The Penguins are undoubtedly glad they kept him in the fold, as Kunitz’s dominant performance in the Eastern Conference Final was crucial in allowing his club to advance.

May 20, 2016: Evgeni Malkin (71) of the Pittsburgh Penguins scores and celebrates with Kris Letang (58) and Chris Kunitz (14) during the fourth game of the 2016 Eastern Conference Finals game between the Pittsburgh Penguins and the Tampa Bay Lightning at Amalie Arena in Tampa, FL. (Photograph by Roy K. Miller/Icon Sportswire)

May 20, 2016: Evgeni Malkin (71) of the Pittsburgh Penguins scores and celebrates with Kris Letang (58) and Chris Kunitz (14). (Photograph by Roy K. Miller/Icon Sportswire)

Skating on a line with star pivot Evgeni Malkin and rookie Rust, the 36-year-old Kunitz had a resurgent third round, tying for the team scoring lead during the Tampa Bay series with six points (three goals, three assists) in seven games.

It wasn’t just that Kunitz managed to get back on the scoresheet consistently, however, but rather when and how he did it. After posting just four points through the first two series, Kunitz came alive against the Lightning when Pittsburgh needed him most.

He went scoreless through the first two games (albeit with six shots over that span) before posting points in each of the final five contests against Tampa Bay. The beginning of that streak saw Kunitz score goals in three straight games, before he turned his attention to setting up Rust’s rise to stardom.

With Pittsburgh’s season on the line in Game 6, Kunitz and his linemates played a key role in quelling the Lightning’s comeback bid. Pittsburgh held a 3-0 lead after two periods, but saw Tampa Bay storm back with two third-period goals, gaining momentum as they worked towards tying it up.

Kunitz and Rust shut that dream down. With two minutes left in the game, the veteran wired a perfectly placed pass to a streaking Rust, allowing the quick-footed winger to pick the puck up with speed and bury the breakaway attempt, icing the game with a 4-2 score.

Kunitz continued with another key setup play in Game 7. In what was sure to be a close, hard-fought battle, it was clear the opening goal was going to be crucial for either team – though especially so for the Penguins, who wanted to get their crowd into the game right away.

Early in the second period, Kunitz got the puck on his stick at the point. Showing some tremendous patience rather than forcing a play, he waited for the late man Rust to join before springing him on another chance in all alone, taking a hard hit from Ryan Callahan to make the game-changing play.

Kunitz’s emergence with Malkin and Rust has served as yet another shot in the arm of the Penguins’ overall offensive attack. With Sidney Crosby, Patric Hornqvist, and Conor Sheary already rolling, and the ‘HBK’ line (Carl Hagelin, Nick Bonino, and Phil Kessel) looking dominant, all that was left was for Pittsburgh’s other star pivot to find his game and begin contributing more consistently as well.

Reunited with Kunitz – who played on Malkin’s wing in 2011-12 when he won the Hart Trophy and his second scoring title – the Russian center was able to do just that.

As should be made clear by the above plays, Kunitz’s third-round success wasn’t the result of simple blind luck. He’s proved to be the perfect grinding counter to the offensive creativity of Malkin and the quick-footed North-South style of Rust, and the result of the combination has been consistent offensive chances.

Speaking to the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette, Penguins assistant coach Rick Tocchet agreed, comparing Kunitz’s role to that of Bonino on what has become the Penguins’ most successful trio:

“We do those space plays where Kunnie chips the puck to a space and you’ve got Rust or Geno skating to it. That’s a deadly weapon. We have the same thing with [Nick] Bonino on the [Carl Hagelin-Phil Kessel] line. The puck gets to an area and the wingers chase it. That’s a big part of our offense.”

Adding to the success of that straightforward style is Kunitz’s dominant phsicality. The Saskatchewan native led the team in hits through the Eastern Conference Final, registering 25 checks in the series’ seven games. And yet, that physical play didn’t come at the expense of offensive opportunities, as is often the worry with hits totals.

May 18, 2016: Chris Kunitz (14) of the Pittsburgh Penguins and Phil Kessel (81) of the Pittsburgh Penguins celebrate the goal by Carl Hagelin (62) of the Pittsburgh Penguins during the third game of the 2016 Eastern Conference Finals game between the Pittsburgh Penguins and the Tampa Bay Lightning at Amalie Arena in Tampa, FL. (Photograph by Roy K. Miller/Icon Sportswire)

May 18, 2016: Chris Kunitz (14) of the Pittsburgh Penguins and Phil Kessel (81) celebrate the goal by Carl Hagelin (62). (Photograph by Roy K. Miller/Icon Sportswire)

In fact, Kunitz reigned as the league’s best possession player throughout the third round, posting an even strength Corsi For percentage of 63.1 percent. He’s been one of the best in this regard throughout the postseason as a whole, as his even strength Corsi For percentage for the entire playoff run sits at 57.9 percent – the highest of any skater still in contention.

At this point, there should be no doubts about the veteran’s importance to Pittsburgh’s success.

He’s been invaluable in terms of setting the tone physically, has been one of the league’s best in terms of driving offense, and has come up with plenty of key plays to help the Penguins take down the best the Eastern Conference had to offer.

Heading into a difficult match up against the San Jose Sharks, Pittsburgh will have to rely heavily on Kunitz if they have a hope of moving forward. Not necessarily because he’ll be the one putting pucks in the net, but because Kunitz’s tireless style of play has kept his team consistently pushing forward.

His ability to combine physicality with dangerous offense will be of utmost importance against San Jose, as the club has more than a few big bodies that Pittsburgh will need to wear down, and a strong defensive unit that will need to be spread thin with unfavourable match-ups.

Between Sidney Crosby, Evgeni Malkin, Phil Kessel, and Kris Letang, the Penguins have more than enough star power to finesse their way to victory, but it’s the low-key dominance of depth players like Kunitz that allows this star power to shine.

If he can continue to play at the level he put on display against the Lightning, then Pittsburgh should have a strong shot at overwhelming yet another team with their impressive depth, and in doing so could finally claim their franchise’s fourth Stanley Cup.

Chris Kunitz reasserting his importance during Penguins’ run
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