PITTSBURGH, Pa. – Chris Kunitz crossed the blue-line with speed, all-stars all around him.
To Kunitz’s right, Pittsburgh Penguins teammate Evgeni Malkin screamed for the puck. To Kunitz’s left, James Neal lurked waiting for a drop pass.
A pair of Tampa Bay defencemen, seeing the NHL’s leading scorer on one wing skated to cut Malkin off, leaving Kunitz all alone with only goaltender Mathieu Garon in the way.
Kunitz didn’t take it personally. He’d probably make the same choice if put in a similar situation to be honest. He’s carved out a nice little career playing quietly alongside some of the game’s top players, so he’s used to getting overlooked.
This time, he made Garon pay, darting to the net then deking his way past the former Penguins backup for his 16th and undeniably prettiest goal of the season as the Penguins rallied for a 4-2 win.
“Geno was yelling for the puck and they went to him and I just cut the middle,” Kunitz said in typical understated fashion.
It’s the way Kunitz has always been. Even in the midst of perhaps the hottest streak of his sneakily solid career, he’s just never been one to command attention. You don’t make the league as an undrafted free agent out of Ferris State as Kunitz did in 2003, of course, without being humbled along the way.
Eight seasons and two Stanley Cups later, Kunitz remains as quiet as ever. Life playing in the shadows of greatness suits him. He’ll gladly get into the corner and dig out the puck so Malkin can go do his thing or tie up defenders in the crease to create a screen opposing goaltenders can’t see around.
It’s what he’s always done regardless of whether he’s playing with Malkin or Sidney Crosby or Teemu Selanne, who Kunitz won a Cup with while playing for Anaheim in 2007. Three dynamic players. Three potential Hall-of-Famers. One common link in Kunitz.
The affable 32-year-old just laughs when asked if he’s the key to the success of the high-profile guys around him. He worked with Crosby at the beginning of the 2010-11 season in which Crosby was inarguably the best player in the league.
Funny, Malkin looks like the same thing while playing alongside Kunitz.
“I’m not the guy that’s going to make the high-skill plays and go in and around guys,” he said. “But if it’s something if I go to a high traffic area, I can cause confusion.”
Pittsburgh opponents have been particularly disoriented since Kunitz joined Malkin and Neal’s line after Crosby went back to injured reserve in early December following a brief eight-game comeback from concussion-like symptoms.
The trio has combined for 43 of Pittsburgh’s 83 goals over the last 27 games as the Penguins have survived despite Crosby’s continued absence. Malkin is playing at an MVP level, Neal has already set a career high in points and goals while Kunitz has quietly gone about his business as one of hockey’s least heralded glue guys.
Kunitz has 16 goals and 24 assists on the season heading into Wednesday’s game against Anaheim. At his current pace, he could threaten the career-high 60 points he put up while helping the Ducks win the Cup.
Not bad for a player who credits his ability to fit seamlessly alongside more talented players with a keen self-awareness that reminds him what he is and just as importantly, what he is not.
“I have to accept that and make sure I play to my strengths to play to a high level,” he said. “(Neal and Malkin) are pushing the pace. I think I’m part of the line because I help out in little areas, going to the net and doing the dirty things.”
How dirty? Well let’s just say the 6-foot-2, 193-pound Kunitz makes a living putting his body in uncomfortable places. Like the corner. Or about a foot in front of an opposing goaltender. Or into the body of an oncoming defenceman to free up some space for Malkin or Neal.
Most of Kunitz’s goals don’t look like the gem he put together while beating Garon. More often they’re deflections or rebounds or tap-ins.
It’s a tough assignment, but it works for Kunitz and it works for the Penguins.
“You have a little bit of everything on the line that makes it successful,” he said. “We play well off each other, we read each other.”
The trio is playing so well, it’s hard to see Kunitz going back to playing alongside Crosby whenever the 2009 MVP returns.
On Sunday, when asked about Kunitz’s future when Crosby comes back, Bylsma brushed it off, calling it a “loaded question.”
One with an obvious answer.
Not that Kunitz minds where he plays. Having to choose between playing with Crosby or Malkin is kind of like choosing between a Porsche and a Lamborghini. Either way, you’re going to go fast.
“They both play so quickly, you’ve just got to go find open spots and make the most of your opportunity,” Kunitz said.
Few in the league are doing it better at the moment than Kunitz and company.