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Kunitz brings out best in Penguins' stars

| Friday, March 8, 2013, 8:12 p.m.
Chaz Palla | Tribune-Review
The Penguins' Chris Kuntiz celebrates the second of his two goal second period against the Capitals on Jan. 3, 2013, at Verizon Center.

PHILADELPHIA — The Penguins' front office long has flirted with the idea of acquiring a high-scoring winger to play with Sidney Crosby, offering Marian Hossa, Jaromir Jagr and Zach Parise contracts.

Turns out, Crosby has had his winger all along.

Left wing Chris Kunitz brings out the best in Crosby and is producing statistics worthy of playing alongside a star.

“This is new territory for me,” Kunitz said with a smile, referring to his ranking third in the NHL in scoring with 31 points, behind only Crosby and Tampa Bay star Steven Stamkos. “It's nice to be rewarded.”

The lofty statistics might be new for Kunitz but bringing out the best in the Penguins' two stars is not.

Most of Crosby and Evgeni Malkin's most noteworthy achievements have come with Kunitz on their respective left wings.

Consider:

• Crosby led all playoff scorers with 15 goals when the Penguins won the Stanley Cup in 2009. Kunitz played on his wing that spring.

• Crosby scored more than 50 goals in a season for the first time during the 2009-10 season with Kunitz as a linemate.

• Crosby produced an eye-popping 32 goals and 66 points in 41 games before getting injured halfway through the 2010-11 season, with Kunitz, again, playing on his left wing.

• Malkin won his first Hart Trophy (MVP) and claimed his second scoring title last season, putting up 109 points. His new left wing last season was Kunitz.

• Crosby is showing signs of running away with the scoring race this season and leads all scorers with 39 points at the halfway mark of the 48-game season. Kunitz is back on his left wing.

“He has a consistency about him,” Crosby said. “He just does so many little things, maybe things that people don't always realize. He has the ability to create space for you. He is so good on the forecheck, and he's got that ability to use it to force turnovers and to open things up for me. And you know he's always going to the net.”

That fearlessness has paid off in bushels of “garbage goals” throughout his career. He had five goals waved off last season for making himself a little too comfortable in the goaltender's crease.

Although that facet of his game doesn't figure to change, Kunitz is scoring in different ways this season. His game-winner Thursday in Philadelphia came on a two-on-one rush with Crosby, and he has buried a number of shots from the high slot. Kunitz, like never before, is scoring “goal-scorers” goals, with Crosby frequently locating him for one-timers.

“They are finding that pass,” coach Dan Bylsma said. “They work on it in practice.”

In fact, they had a few months to work on it.

Crosby and Kunitz were regulars for informal workouts at Southpointe during the NHL lockout. They skated on the same line during daily scrimmages. The chemistry shows.

“I attribute all or most of my success to playing with him,” Kunitz said.

Still, Kunitz believes he and Pascal Dupuis are perfectly suitable linemates for Crosby.

“I think we always (feel that way),” Kunitz said. “We don't change our game. That makes for a consistent line. There are areas where (general manager Ray Shero) can try to get better as a team. If that happens, that happens. That's not our concern.”

Josh Yohe is a staff writer for Trib Total Media. Reach him at jyohe@tribweb.com or via Twitter @JoshYohe_Trib.

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