Penguins F Kunitz thriving on line with Crosby
PITTSBURGH (AP) — Chris Kunitz planted himself in the crease, bent over, put his stick on the ground and waited.
Even as a New York Islanders defenseman leaned on the Pittsburgh Penguins forward trying to nudge him away from goaltender Evgeni Nabokov, Kunitz's skates appeared to be glued to the ice.
When the pass came from teammate James Neal moments later, Kunitz — a statue in the middle of chaos — casually tapped it into the wide open net.
With an almost sheepish grin the nine-year veteran lifted his stick in celebration, as if to say, "Again? For real?"
Such is life these days for one of the NHL's hottest players, one who has spent most of his nine-year career living comfortably in the shadow of his high-profile teammates only to find himself maybe becoming one himself.
A quick scan of the NHL's leading scorers more than halfway through the season includes the usual suspects, including Pittsburgh's Sidney Crosby and Tampa Bay's Steven Stamkos at the top.
At the moment, it also includes a blue collar guy who has developed a knack for lighting the red lamp.
Heading into Tuesday night's showdown with the Boston Bruins, Kunitz is third in the league in scoring. His 36 points on 17 goals and 19 assists puts him well ahead of guys whose resumes are littered with All-Star appearances and whose paychecks come with a few more zeros.
The 31-year-old's plus/minus ratio of plus-21 is the highest in the league and he's turning an eye-popping 29 percent of his shots into goals. Kunitz, as is his way, insists he's not doing anything differently.
Ask Kunitz what's the secret to the dramatic uptick in his production and he deflects any praise onto a guy more used to the spotlight.
"I get to play with the best player in the world every night," Kunitz said, nodding toward Crosby's locker. "It makes going out and playing a lot of fun."
Crosby, however, knows it's more than just luck. While the former MVP appears to be fully recovered from the concussion-like symptoms that basically robbed him of nearly two years in his prime, Crosby says it's Kunitz who is doing all the hard work, not the other way around.
"The way Kuni's firing the puck right now, he makes all of us look good by putting the puck in the back of the net," Crosby said.
It's happening with alarming regularity.
Kunitz set career highs in goals (26) and points (61) last season while not missing a game, playing most of the time alongside Neal and NHL MVP Evgeni Malkin. Yet somehow he is on pace to surpass both totals despite a schedule basically cleaved in half due to the lockout.
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