Penguins' stabilizing force
LOS ANGELES -- Defenseman Kris Letang looked to his left in the Penguins' victorious locker room late Saturday night and nodded confidently while looking at one of his teammates.
"Yeah," Letang said. "Chris Kunitz is pretty good, isn't he."
Letang wasn't asking a question, and, really, there was no need. With so many Penguins out with injuries, Kunitz has elevated his game and is a big reason the Penguins boast the NHL's most points.
His work Saturday at Staples Center -- Kunitz tied the Penguins' game with the Kings at the 17:03 mark of the third period and won the contest in a shootout -- is further evidence his play has never been better.
"Kuny battles every night," right wing James Neal said. "You know what you're going to get from him every game."
Kunitz has scored goals in various ways, from the dirty goal on a rebound in Toronto to a pretty one-timer at home against New Jersey in October.
And then there was his game-tying goal against Los Angeles. He pounced on a loose puck behind the Kings' net and doggedly skated in front and lifted a backhand under the crossbar. It was a product of determination and skill.
It was pure Kunitz.
"He's got more skill than people realize," Neal said.
Kunitz, a fast and physical player who doesn't waste energy playing a horizontal game, immediately fit in coach Dan Bylsma's north-south system when he was acquired as part of the Ryan Whitney trade to Anaheim during the 2008-09 season. He recently was given a two-year contract extension.
Bylsma and general manager Ray Shero have long appreciated Kunitz's talents. Shero, when speaking of Kunitz's style last summer, said, "Now that's a Penguin."
Kunitz's responsibilities are many, but he seems to thrive with the heavy workload. He plays left wing on the second line with center Jordan Staal and right wing Pascal Dupuis but also has solidified a spot in front of the net on the top power-play unit.
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He is also a strong penalty killer and center Sidney Crosby's presumed left wing whenever Crosby is cleared to return to game action.
"Just such of a good hockey player," Dupuis said. "He is playing some kind of hockey right now."
Bylsma is certainly pleased with Kunitz. The road-weary Penguins could have mailed in Saturday's game against Los Angeles, but veterans like Kunitz wouldn't allow it. In fact, Bylsma thought it could have been an even bigger night for Kunitz.
"I thought he could have had another two goals the way he was getting in the blue paint, getting shots on goal," Bylsma said.
"That goal," Dupuis said of the game-tying tally, "was classic Kuny."
Note: Kings forward Ethan Moreau was fined $2,500 late Sunday for his boarding of Kunitz in the first period of the Penguins' win at Los Angeles on Saturday. The incident was reviewed yesterday, and Moreau was fined the maximum ammount allowed per the collective bargaining agreement because he was in violation of Rule 41.1 (boarding). ... The Penguins announced yesterday they reassigned defenseman Robert Bortuzzo to Wilkes-Barre/Scranton of the American Hockey League. Bortuzzo made his NHL debut Saturday, posting an even rating in 10 minutes, 38 seconds of ice time. ... The Penguins did not practice yesterday. They are scheduled to practice today and Tuesday at Southpointe Iceoplex.