The Anaheim Ducks first-line forward has been cleared to return from a broken hand and coach Randy Carlyle hinted he’d be back in the lineup for Game 3 of the Stanley Cup final on Saturday night against the Ottawa Senators.
Kunitz broke his right hand in Game 1 of the Western Conference final against Detroit and was told afterwards that his season was likely done.
Now the 27-year-old from Regina will likely make his first ever appearance in the Stanley Cup final.
“It’s been painful watching,” he said after the Ducks morning skate on Saturday. “It’s probably one of the hardest things I’ve ever done in my life . . .
“From the initial shock of them telling me that the season was going to be over, it’s a great relief that I might have a chance now.”
When asked about his player’s injury throughout this Stanley Cup final, coach Carlyle didn’t sound confident that Kunitz would be back.
The turning point for him came when he spoke to the team doctor on Friday night.
“The last question we asked the doctor is that if this was your son, would you allow him to play? And the answer, obviously, was yes,” said Carlyle.
Kunitz would likely return to his spot on the top line with Teemu Selanne and Andy McDonald. The physical winger has registered a goal and five assists in 11 playoff games this season.
News of his potential return was received well in the Ducks dressing room.
“It’s a big boost for us,” said Selanne. “He’s a big part of our team. We need everybody out there. We have played a year and a half together. It always helps when you play with guys who know each other really well. He’s physical, he’s got speed. He’s unbelievable.”
Kunitz’s right hand appeared to still be a bit swollen and he said he expected it to be a “little tight” during the game.
Still, he wasn’t worried that it would become something the Ottawa players would target.
“If it was going to be that easy to hurt or something, I wouldn’t be out there,” said Kunitz. “It’s a physical game, but I don’t think anyone’s going to go out of their way.”
Carlyle’s main concern about inserting Kunitz straight back into the lineup was conditioning even though he’s spent a lot of time on the stationary bike and returned to practice a few days ago.
“He’s worked hard off ice, but this is not mid-season, this is the Stanley Cup final,” said Carlyle. “It will be a raucous atmosphere and the body can be drained in a hurry.
“It’s a decision we’ll have to make – if he will provide the best option at that position.”
There’s no doubt that his presence could help Anaheim.
Kunitz has been a big contributor this season and is one of the reasons the team has made it this far.
“He’s been a top line left-winger for our group,” said Carlyle. “He’s the type of individual that has played more of the dirty work, as you would call it. He’s been first on the forecheck a lot times and he’s a banger.
“He plays hard for his teammates and they respect his work ethic.”