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Rossi: Kunitz's history with Crosby should make him a lock for Sochi

Chaz Palla | Tribune-Review - The Penguins' Olli Maatta plays against the Canucks Saturday, Oct. 19, 2013 at Consol Energy Center.
<div style='float:right;width:100%;' align='right'><em>Chaz Palla | Tribune-Review</em></div>The Penguins' Olli Maatta plays against the Canucks Saturday, Oct. 19, 2013 at Consol Energy Center.
Chaz Palla | Tribune-Review - The Penguins' Zach Sill (lf) and Brian Gibbons fight for the puck during a scrimage on Saturday, Sept. 14, 2013 at Consol Enrgy Center.
<div style='float:right;width:100%;' align='right'><em>Chaz Palla | Tribune-Review</em></div>The Penguins' Zach Sill (lf) and Brian Gibbons fight for the puck during a scrimage on Saturday, Sept. 14, 2013 at Consol Enrgy Center.
Chaz Palla | Tribune-Review - The Penguins' Chris Kunitz beats Islanders goaltender Kevin Poulin for the first of his two first-period goals Friday, Nov. 22, 2013, at Consol Energy Center.
<div style='float:right;width:100%;' align='right'><em>Chaz Palla | Tribune-Review</em></div>The Penguins' Chris Kunitz beats Islanders goaltender Kevin Poulin for the first of his two first-period goals Friday, Nov. 22, 2013, at Consol Energy Center.

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Saturday, Nov. 30, 2013, 9:48 p.m.
 

Chris Kunitz has earned a trip to Sochi, Russia — and some of it Sidney Crosby has had nothing to do with.

Entering Saturday, Kunitz had scored 88 goals and produced 197 points in 239 regular-season games since the 2010 Winter Olympics. He had delivered 31 of those goals and 74 of those points without Crosby as his center.

So, with all due respect to Crosby, Kunitz deserves more credit than he gives himself.

“Anybody would be better playing with Sid,” Kunitz said Wednesday. “There aren't a lot of guys that do what he can do.”

OK, that is true.

Only a couple of freak injuries (concussion, broken jaw) have prevented Crosby from making this season a chase for a possible fourth consecutive scoring title — something not seen in the NHL since Jaromir Jagr's run from 1998-2001.

Jagr never had a fit at center during that stretch like Crosby has had with Kunitz since general manager Ray Shero made him a Penguin in February 2009.

This is Crosby's ninth NHL season. He had played 184 of 496 regular-season games with Kunitz as his regular left winger — and that total is so low only because Crosby missed 116 games the last three seasons. Otherwise, Crosby would have played 60 percent of his career with Kunitz as a linemate.

Their productive history together alone should get Kunitz onto Team Canada, though it might not. There is no indication that Hockey Canada's selection committee views Kunitz as a lock, though certainly his strong combined start with Crosby (24 goals and 60 points entering Saturday) has provided executive director Steve Yzerman pause for thought on the importance of chemistry.

He should be a lock, though, because Kunitz is not just any linemate for Crosby.

He is the one more than a few people within the Penguins organization have expressed reservation about potentially seeing play with Crosby for Canada at the 2014 Winter Olympics.

Evgeni Malkin, whose Russian squad will face immense pressure to win gold, would rather not see Kunitz out of the corner of his right eye when taking faceoff against Crosby. Dan Bylsma, who believes his American squad should return with gold, would rather not see Kunitz one-touching passes to Crosby in those wider neutral zones. Olli Maatta, a dark-horse candidate to play for Finland, would rather not see Kunitz hunting him while playing a puck near the end-zone boards.

The point is clear from talking to Penguins who are potential Canada opponents for the Olympics: Kunitz would be a welcome omission by Team Canada.

As Malkin said, “Kuni is (a) great player, especially for Sid.”

Crosby's overtime shot won the last Olympic tournament for Canada, but he was not a dominant force in Vancouver in February 2010.

There was a reason for that. For all of Crosby's greatness, finding the right fit for him is also a great challenge.

Coach Mike Babcock never found that fit — and not for a lack of tinkering — at the last Olympics.

Shero spent two-and-a-half NHL seasons looking for it before acquiring Kunitz. Higher profile wingers preceded (Marian Hossa) and followed (Bill Guerin) and were chased (Zach Parise), but the indisputable fact is that only Kunitz has made it with Crosby.

Kunitz talked Wednesday morning of Crosby's preference for using the backhand. He spoke of Crosby using it to move the puck in all areas of the ice more than any player and how that was just one of many traits with which he has had to gain comfort over their years together.

“Like I said, there aren't a lot of guys who can do most of the things Sid does,” Kunitz said.

Kunitz is the only guy used to Crosby doing all of those things and making sure those things pay off.

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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