Chris Kunitz #14 of the Pittsburgh Penguins and P.K. Subban #76 of the Nashville Predators battle in Game One of the NHL Stanley Cup Final at PPG Paints Arena on May 29, 2017 in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania. (Photo by Justin K. Aller/NHLI via Getty Images)
PITTSBURGH — Three is not enough.
That has been the mantra Chris Kunitz has carried with him into these playoffs. The Pittsburgh Penguins veteran, who is coming off the worst season of his career in what is the final year of his contract, has won more championships than any other player remaining in the post-season. But he’s still hungry for more.
He wants one ring for every finger on his right hand. And then some.
So the current three that Kunitz has already won with two teams (Anaheim in 2007 and Pittsburgh in 2009 and 2016) are not enough. The question is whether winning a fourth will be, at least when it comes to gaining entry into the Hockey Hall of Fame.
The answer is probably no. But it’s an interesting question.
No current player in the NHL has won four Stanley Cups. The last two to do it, Nicklas Lidstrom and Patrick Roy, are not only in the Hall of Fame, but were amongst the top-100 players as announced by the league this year.
And yet, Kunitz’s somewhat improbable career, which has included an Olympic gold medal and a first-team all-star selection, is more difficult to define.
Kunitz , who went undrafted and was twice claimed off waivers, has scored 250 goals and 580 points in 884 career games. He was a Duck back when they were Mighty and a Thrasher before they moved to Winnipeg. He has never won an Art Ross, Hart, Rocket Richard or any other major individual trophy. He hasn’t even been a finalist.
But when it comes to the playoffs, few have a better resume than the 37-year-old.
In Game 1 of the Stanley Cup final, Kunitz added to his list of post-season accomplishments by picking up a pair of assists in a 5-3 win against the Nashville Predators. In the process, he moved into 16th place on the active scoring list with 27 goals and 88 points in 156 games.
“I think it's not by accident that he has the amount of Stanley Cup rings that he has,” said Penguins head coach Mike Sullivan. “He's a high-stakes player. He's a fierce competitor. When the games become most important, he is at his very best.”
After scoring nine goals and 29 points this season and then missing the first round of the playoffs with a lower-body injury, Kunitz has seen more time on the fourth line than the top line. But in both roles, he’s found ways to be effective.
It was Kunitz who put on his hard hat and infuriated the Washington Capitals with so-called “predatory” hits in the second round of the playoffs. In the following round, he used his scorer’s touch to snipe the double-OT winner in Game 7 of the conference final against the Ottawa Senators.
“Well, the thing that I really love about Kuny is that he’s the consummate team guy,” said Sullivan. “He does whatever we ask. We've played him in different roles throughout the course of this year. Sometimes we've played him in a top-six role, on a power play. Other times we've played him in a bottom-six role. He's helped our penalty kill.
“Whatever we ask of him as a coaching staff, he embraces. That's what we've really grown to love about Kuny and respect about him, is he's all about helping the team win.”
In Game 1, Kunitz was back playing on the top line with Sidney Crosby. And once again, he was helping his team win. With the Penguins ahead 1-0 in the first period, Kunitz took a pass from Crosby and while looking in one direction slid over a pass the opposite way to Conor Sheary for a wide-open one-timer.
“It was a great play,” said Crosby. “Usually, guys are shooting when they get the puck in that area. He did a great job of keeping his head up. I think he knew that (Sheary) was going to find the open ice there, so it was a great look. Big goal as far as keeping that momentum.”
The bigger assist, of course, might have come in the final minute of the third period. With Nashville down a goal and pressing for the equalizer, it was Kunitz who won a puck battle along the boards and then found Nick Bonino for an outlet pass on an empty-net goal.
“How do you not love a guy like that?” asked Penguins defenceman Trevor Daley. “He’s going for his fourth Cup. Guys like that, I played against him for years, and he’s a tough guy to play against. He’s an in-your-face type of guy and he loves these big games. I’m not surprised to see him doing what he’s doing.”
As for Kunitz, his motivation is not to sign another contract. He’s not thinking about the Hall of Fame or even what another ring would mean for his legacy. He just wants another story to tell.
“We had a conversation after Game 6 (of the Eastern Conference final) that you don’t get this opportunity,” Kunitz said earlier this week. “The accomplishment of winning is the bond (that you form with your teammates). Not a day goes by when you don’t get a text message from someone you won with.
“That’s something that drives you to want to do it again.”
JAKE DOESN'T CHEAT: CROSBY
The thing that Sidney Crosby appreciated was the maturity.
Jake Guentzel might be the least experienced player on the Pittsburgh Penguins. But when the 22-year-old rookie was mired in an eight-game scoring drought, Crosby said it was impressive that his teammate did not let his emotions get the better of him.
“Yeah, I think he just stayed with it,” said Crosby. “I don't think he got too frustrated. I'm sure there's a couple that he wanted to see go in.”
Guentzel, who leads the post-season with 10 goals, scored arguably his biggest one in Game 1 of the Stanley Cup final. With the score tied 3-3 in the third period, it was Guentzel who beat Pekka Rinne with a wrist shot in Pittsburgh's 5-3 win.
“I don't think he changed the way he played, or started cheating in areas,” said Crosby. “He kept going to the same areas, kept competing. If you continue to do that, eventually they'll go in. He got a big one for us last night.
“I think he's quietly competitive, but I think he's shown a lot of poise, too. You see the situations he's been thrown into. For a young player, that's not always easy. He's handled it well. He's going through some things for the first time. He's handling it really well.”