NHL Insider: Reunion with Kunitz leaves Malkin feeling fine
Evgeni Malkin felt good going into Game 5.
“Really good,” he said.
There was a reason.
Malkin knew that at some point during the pivotal contest of a closely contested Eastern Conference quarterfinal series between the Penguins and New York Islanders that he and regular right winger James Neal would be reunited with their best buddy.
That would be Chris Kunitz, the left winger with whom every MVP center on the Penguins really wants to play.
Late in the first period Thursday night at Consol Energy Center, coach Dan Bylsma finally unleashed the lines that he had wanted to try out late in the regular season.
Kunitz went to work with Malkin and Neal, and Pascal Dupuis moved from right to left wing so center Sidney Crosby could play with Jarome Iginla.
This was Bylsma's plan all along for these men: three former scoring champions (Crosby, Malkin, Iginla), two (Kunitz, Neal) who have finished as top-10 scorers and the other guy (Dupuis) coming off consecutive 20-goal campaigns.
Crosby's broken jaw did not allow Bylsma to experiment with the groupings late in the regular season.
The playoffs are no time to experiment, especially with a best-of-seven series tied, 2-2. It helped ease any concerns Bylsma might have had that Kunitz, the NHL's No. 2 scorer at one point during the season, said he would play, well, anywhere for the Penguins.
“I don't think we've ever had a problem with guys jumping into any lineup,” Kunitz said.
“We know we have a lot of guys on this team that are used to being in maybe different situations, but we can put out different lineups with guys taking on different roles.
“It's about being unselfish, and it's great to be a part of that when it's going on out there.”
Selfishness is not often associated with Malkin or Crosby, but there is good reason both prefer playing with Kunitz to their left.
He was in that spot for Malkin last season when Malkin won a second scoring title and MVP, and Neal scored 40 goals for the first time.
Crosby would have won a second scoring title this season had he not missed the final 12 regular-season games, and he is an MVP finalist. Kunitz was a staple as his left winger.
Kunitz said he believes he meshes with either elite center because he does not alter his approach. He works the corners and front of the net, plays the body and shoots when open. He also knows that the puck is better suited on the stick blades of Crosby or Malkin, so in accordance Kunitz moves it quickly.
Malkin has said his ailing left shoulder has weakened his usually powerful shot, so the placement of Kunitz on his left wing is doubly beneficial for the Penguins.
It boosts Malkin's confidence, which despite his stature can occasionally wane. Also, Kunitz creates space, Malkin said.
That space provides Malkin an extra half-second, which is often all he needs to draw a goalie into overcommitting or a defenseman away from Neal, who has mastered the off-angle shot from the opposite wing.
Neal attempted eight shots in Game 5.
Malkin attempted seven, won six of 11 faceoffs and recorded an assist — all in about 15 minutes.
It was his most efficient performance of the playoffs, perhaps his most complete.
It was no coincidence that Kunitz was his left-hand man.