Veteran forward Kunitz is content in his role with Penguins

Chris Harlan
| Tuesday, Jan. 24, 2012

Ask Evgeni Malkin or James Neal, and they'll say without hesitation that teammate Chris Kunitz is always getting in the way.

For instance, when Malkin was making a quick pass and Neal was scoring the game-tying goal Sunday, Kunitz was standing in the way.

And earlier that game, when Kris Letang was blasting a 60-foot goal from the blue line, Kunitz was there in the way.

Both times the Penguins forward was skating in front of Washington's net, blocking the view of Capitals goalie Michal Neuvirth. Kunitz didn't earn an assist on either goal, but neither happened without his subtle help.

Or not-so-subtle help, if you were Neuvirth trying to see around him.

"Kunitz may not be the flashiest first-line player in the league, but there's speed, there's grit, and there's a net-front presence," Penguins coach Dan Bylsma said. "There's a lot to his game that maybe doesn't get on the scoresheet. (Against the Capitals), he did some of his best work in and around the net."

Kunitz has 14 goals and 17 assists. But it's his physical play that makes him a top-line forward, like when he screened Neuvirth from the game-tying shot.

"His screen takes the vision away from the goalie just for a split-second and I get a chance to shoot it," said Neal, whose goal with 12:54 left helped extend the team's winning streak to six entering tonight's game in St. Louis. "We're playing as a line. Kuny does those things that go unnoticed every night."

Seeing Neal with the puck, Kunitz made sure he and Capitals defenseman John Carlson stayed between Neal and Neuvirth. That's not always simple against an opponent three inches taller and 20 pounds heavier, like Carlson.

"I'm not the biggest guy," said Kunitz, who's 6-foot and 193 pounds, "but if you're there competing and making it hard for them to see pucks, it gives you a better advantage."

That was obvious when Letang scored a goal from just inside the blue line. Kunitz was in front of the goal, with his back to Neuvirth. Typically, a goalie will catch any shot from that far away, Kunitz said. This one slipped past.

"If they can't see the pass or can't see when the shot's coming, then they have to react," Kunitz said.

Malkin, Neal and Kunitz could be the hottest line combination in hockey. During this six-game streak, Malkin has nine goals and Neal has five.

"That line may be the best line in the league right now, the way they're playing," Bylsma said.

Kunitz has one goal and two assists during that span, but when Malkin was asked about the fun he and Neal have had playing together lately, Malkin quickly praised his other linemate.

"I like playing with Chris Kunitz, too," Malkin said. "He's help, always. He has great speed. He works hard every game."

Neal agreed: "He's so hard to play against, so he opens up a lot of space for myself and Geno. Sometimes that goes unnoticed."

Kunitz deflected credit for the line's success, insisting "Geno's the main factor," but no one should downplay his role. Even if at times he's just getting in the way.

"Any time you can help your team out, that's what you do," Kunitz said, "whether that's scoring goals or standing in front."

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