Friday, May 26, 2017

Chris Kunitz is unlikely hero to give Pittsburgh Penguins chance at Stanley Cup history

, USA TODAY Sports
May 26, 2017

NHL Deputy Commissioner Bill Daly, Chris Kunitz #14, Sidney Crosby #87 and Evgeni Malkin #71 of the Pittsburgh Penguins pose with the Prince of Wales Trophy after winning Game Seven of the Eastern Conference Final against the Ottawa Senators during the 2017 NHL Stanley Cup Playoffs at PPG PAINTS Arena on May 25, 2017 in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania. The Pittsburgh Penguins defeated the Ottawa Senators with a score of 3 to 2. (Photo by Jamie Sabau/Getty Images)

PITTSBURGH — Chris Kunitz is 37. He will be an unrestricted free agent in July. He hadn’t scored a goal in 34 games, counting playoff and regular-season games. He has worn a Pittsburgh Penguins jersey for nine seasons and can’t be sure he will be here for a 10th.

Maybe that made him the perfect person to score the double-overtime goal in the 3-2 Game 7 win against the Ottawa Senators, which gives the Penguins a chance to become the first team in 19 years to win back-to-back championships.

Nothing has ever come easy for hard-working Kunitz during his career, and nothing has come easy for the Penguins in this postseason.

“It's been a hard — it's been a really hard playoffs,” Penguins coach Mike Sullivan said. “I give this group of players so much credit. They find ways to win, and we're not perfect on some nights by any stretch. But this group of players has a will to win as a group more so than any other group I've been around.”

The Penguins have endured numerous injuries, periods of inconsistency and two Game 7s. The march of the Penguins hasn’t been as smooth as last year’s journey to the championship. But in some ways, it’s been more impressive. The Penguins continue to anoint new heroes, explore different paths to success.

“It’s a good feeling to compete the way we did,” said Penguins captain Sidney Crosby, who set up Kunitz for the winning goal.

The Senators were the best defensive team and Craig Anderson was the sharpest goalie the Penguins faced in these playoffs. The Penguins had 42 shots in Game 7 and needed every one of them to get rid of the pesky Senators.

It wasn’t a laser shot that dispatched the Senators.

“The puck fluttered off my stick,” Kunitz said. “I don't know if it touched him or just kept going right by. Looked like there was good screen on the goalie, looked like he fell down. Just found its way into the net. Sometimes you get lucky when you put one in the net.”

Kunitz has scored as many as 35 goals in a season, but he had nine this season.

"He has that knack for big games,” Crosby said. “He does so many little things. Probably a lot of things go unnoticed, but I don’t think his two goals will go unnoticed.”

Kunitz had two goals, six shots, four hits and three blocks, none bigger than the block he made in the second overtime.

“There was a breakdown, and Mark Stone ended up with the puck right in the slot, one of the most dangerous shooters, walking right down the pipe, and (Kunitz) had an unbelievable block,” Pittsburgh defenseman Ian Cole said. “Those are the little things that our team gets excited about.”

The Penguins needed Kunitz and mental toughness to survive this game. They led 1-0 on Kunitz’ first goal only to have the Senators tie it 20 seconds later. They led 2-1 on a Justin Schultz power-play goal only have Ryan Dzingel tie it with 5:19 left in regulation.

“Our defense corps is a resilient bunch,” Sullivan said. “They get knocked down, and they get up, and they get back in the fight. I think that's what I love about them.”

They played one of their best games of the postseason, buying time until Kunitz could produce his heroics.

Kunitz shared the credit. He said he found open ice because the Ottawa defense was drawn to Crosby.

“When he drives it deep, everyone gets scared,” Kunitz said. “Sid's got great vision and put it right there. Just found a way to put it on net and got lucky.

He said it didn’t matter who scored the goal “because we all know we are going to have to pull our weight at some point.”

That could be the Penguins’ motto as they attempt to be the first team in almost two decades to successfully defend a championship.

“It’s a great opportunity,” Pittsburgh defenseman Olli Maatta said.

No one appreciates the opportunity more than Kunitz

“(You) never know if you're going to get another chance to come this far,” Kunitz said. “You never know if you're going to play on this ice again with this team. So you've got to make sure you make that last as long as you can. It's not a lot of fun thinking about the future when you want to be .here and you want to be playing with your teammates. Sometimes it comes down to luck.”

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