Kunitz hat trick sparks Pens to 3rd straight win

| Sunday, Feb. 3, 2013, 3:30 p.m.

WASHINGTON — Chris Kunitz is feeling a little better.

So are the Penguins.

Their 6-3 victory over the Washington Capitals at Verizon Center on Sunday was a third consecutive win since losing three of four. The Penguins have outscored opponents, 14-4, in their past three games.

Attitude is perhaps the biggest reason for wins at the New York Rangers, at home against New Jersey on Saturday and here. Left winger Matt Cooke, who notched his first goal Sunday, described it as “defense first,” and coach Dan Bylsma noted a general “difference.”

“(This) was the perfect example of a game that wasn't going all that smooth in the second period,” Bylsma said.

The Capitals had pulled even, 2-2, on defenseman John Carlson's goal. From near his offensive-zone blue line, he dumped a puck off the boards. It angled sharply and skipped into a cage abandoned by Penguins goalie Thomas Vokoun, who had anticipated playing it behind the net.

That was a bad break.

The Penguins were in an equally bad spot 12 seconds later because of a boarding penalty taken by recently acquired left winger Zach Boychuk.

“We have to respond to that, continue to play consistent,” Bylsma said. “We were stuck with that penalty-kill (situation) and had to come up really big.

“That response in the second half of that second period is more of the mentality our team needs to have.”

The Penguins (6-3-0, 12 points) killed the penalty and held the Capitals to a goal on four power-play chances.

Defenseman Kris Letang and Kunitz (twice) scored goals to close the second, and the Penguins carried a comfortable three-goal cushion into the final period.

Opponents had outscored the Penguins, 12-4, in the second period entering the game.

The Capitals (2-6-1, 5 points), once the NHL's highest-octane offense, managed only 24 shots. Captain Alex Ovechkin, a two-time MVP now playing as a right winger instead of on the left side, managed five shots.

Penguins defensemen moved the puck quickly out of the zone, preventing Capitals forwards from creating much havoc in front of Vokoun, who spent last season with Washington.

“We needed more bodies around the net,” Capitals right winger Troy Brouwer said. “We didn't have very many second opportunities. It was one and done.”

Before this weekend, it had been one, then none, for Kunitz since scoring in the Penguins' opening win at Philadelphia on Jan. 19.

He awoke Wednesday in New York with flu symptoms. His breath smelled of lozenges inside the visitors' dressing room Sunday.

“Goals make you smile,” Kunitz said.

A late one, with eight seconds remaining and the Penguins working a two-man advantage, clinched his third career hat trick.

Kunitz totaled four goals and six points in the Penguins' weekend wins.

“You know what to expect,” said captain Sidney Crosby of Kunitz, the left winger who has become his constant linemate along with right winger Pascal Dupuis.

“(Kunitz) works hard, gets to a lot of loose pucks and creates a lot of pressure on other teams. Nobody likes to deal with him in front of the net.”

Crosby, who recorded three assists in this victory, was among the Penguins who dismissed the panic that many fans felt after a home loss to the New York Islanders on Wednesday.

“Frustration was creeping in because we expected a certain level that maybe wasn't there,” Crosby said. “That's something we have to create.”

Or at least maintain.

A return engagement with the Islanders, this one at Nassau Coliseum, is Tuesday night.

Rob Rossi is a staff writer for Trib Total Media. Reach him at rrossi@tribweb.com or via Twitter @RobRossi_Trib.

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