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From afterthought to hero, Kunitz cherishing Stanley Cup run

Chris Kunitz went 21 playoff games without scoring a goal. And then, in Game 7 of the Eastern Conference final, he scored arguably the two biggest post-season goals of his career.

Chris Kunitz spent much of the campaign as an afterthought. On a Pittsburgh Penguins team that boasts all-star scorers Sidney Crosby, Evgeni Malkin and Phil Kessel, youthful skill in Conor Sheary, Jake Guentzel and Bryan Rust and a strong crease with standout rookie netminder Matt Murray and savvy veteran puckstopper Marc-Andre Fleury, it’s easy to understand why.

As the season progressed, Kunitz watched his ice time dwindle — the once top-line minutes had become those of a bottom-six forward — and his point totals followed. His nine goals were far and away the fewest of his career, his 29 points were even less than he managed in his 50-game, injury-shortened 2009-10 campaign. And Kunitz’s playoff production was sorely lacking. Entering Thursday’s game, Kunitz had two points, both assists, and was averaging little more than one shot on goal per game. So, again, Kunitz was an afterthought in Game 7.

That is, until he wasn’t.

Kunitz came alive in Game 7 and played what was arguably the most impactful post-season game of his career. In the second period, with the score deadlocked at zero, it was Kunitz who put Pittsburgh on the board first, chipping a Sheary pass by Ottawa Senators goaltender Craig Anderson. The goal was the first Kunitz had scored in these playoffs and the first time he had found the goal column in the post-season since the second period of Game 5 of last year’s Eastern Conference final against the Tampa Bay Lightning.

But Kunitz’s work was far from over. After the Senators had tied the game, Ottawa took a brutal penalty midway through the third period, leading Kunitz to find himself over the boards for a potentially game-changing power play. His pass back to Justin Schultz set up an exchange with Kessel that led to Schultz’s power play goal. The tally briefly put the Penguins ahead before the Senators clawed back once again. But it was when the contest went to overtime — not one, but two — that Kunitz made his indelible mark on what could now become consecutive Stanley Cup victories by Pittsburgh.

In the second overtime frame, with the Penguins buzzing, Kunitz found himself in space with the puck on Crosby’s stick and the Senators focused on shutting down Pittsburgh’s captain. All alone in the high slot, Crosby put the puck on a tee for Kunitz, who fired home a knuckling shot that beat Anderson. Kunitz’s goal handed the Penguins the victory, the Eastern Conference title and a second-straight berth in the Stanley Cup final.

“I was just trying to get into a soft spot,” Kunitz told reporters post-game. “The puck fluttered off my stick. I don’t know if it touched him or just kept going right by. Looked like there was a good screen on the goalie, looked like he fell down, and it just found its way into the net. Sometimes you get lucky when you put one on net.”

The history books won’t say if the shot and subsequent goal were lucky or not — though even if there was an element of luck with the puck fluttering, it took smarts to find the soft spot in coverage. What the record of the double-overtime victory in Game 7 of the 2017 Eastern Conference finals will say, however, is that Kunitz was undoubtedly the Penguins’ hero. He couldn’t have picked a better game to find his scoring touch again, either.

For Kunitz, the two-goal game was the first time he had managed to find twine twice in a playoff outing since 2013. It was the first time he had registered three points in a post-season game since 2015. Kunitz’s six shots were the most he had put on net in a single playoff contest since he managed seven shots twice during the 2014 post-season. And it also happened to be the first time Kunitz had scored a game-winning goal since April 18, 2015 — which also came in the form of an overtime winner, that one over the New York Islanders in the opening round.

Scoring the goal that moves the Penguins on to the final has to mean a lot to Kunitz, too. At 37 and in the final year of his contract, there’s a level of uncertainty facing him this coming off-season. The Penguins will have considerable cap space to work with, but have to decide how they want to spend it in the off-season. It could be utilized on the bottom six, bulking up the depth of the roster. Maybe filling in the defense with better pieces, creating a better cushion in front of Murray for next season, is what’s important to GM Jim Rutherford. So, where Kunitz fits in beyond this year is unknown.

There’s a possibility for him to slide into the Matt Cullen role — the 40-year-old has signed consecutive one-year deals to stay in Pittsburgh — and continue on with the Penguins. There’s also a chance for Kunitz to be on the outside looking in if Rutherford wants to liven up the roster after two deep playoff runs. There will be fresh faces, younger legs and players with more offensive punch who might challenge for a spot in Pittsburgh come next year. 

No matter what happens, though, it’s awfully evident Kunitz is cherishing this run.

“You never know if you’re going to get a chance to come this far, never know if you’re going to play on this ice again with this team, so you have to make sure you make that last as long as you can,” Kunitz told reporters. “It’s not a lot of fun thinking about the future when you want to be here, you want to be playing with your teammates. Sometimes it comes down to luck — with a goal going against you and your seasons’s over — so I’m happy that it’s not over for us yet. We’ve got another challenge in front of us, and another chance to win another Cup.”

And the chance is courtesy of Kunitz, who will be anything but an afterthought in the retelling of Pittsburgh's journey should the Penguins become the first back-to-back Stanley Cup champions of the salary cap era.

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