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Penguins make case for Kunitz for spot on Canada's Olympic team

| Saturday, Jan. 4, 2014, 10:51 p.m.

Defenseman Rob Scuderi spent the previous four seasons with the Los Angeles Kings, getting a glimpse of a connection he thought was unique to players who shared bloodlines. Upon rejoining the Penguins, he was reminded that Sidney Crosby and Chris Kunitz are right there with the Vancouver Canucks' Sedin twins, Henrik and Daniel.

“The biggest concern is once they get on a roll, it seems to feed on itself and they're maybe unstoppable for a whole period,” Scuderi said. “If they get a goal or two, that could be the difference for the whole game.

“For me, against the Sedins, it was, ‘They might get a chance or two, but just keep it at that.' Don't let them run away with it, because we've seen with Sid and Kuni, it can ugly pretty fast.”

Selecting an Olympic roster from a talent pool as plentiful as Canada's is an ugly assignment, and Team Canada's executive director Steve Yzerman may face no tougher call than the one he must make on Kunitz by Tuesday.

To not take Kunitz would mean leaving off a reigning first-team NHL All-Star, a player chasing a second consecutive top-10 finish in scoring, someone with 94 goals over the past four seasons.

Working against Kunitz is that he is only the ninth highest-scoring Canadian winger over those seasons. In fact, he is only the second highest-scoring Canadian winger to play for the Penguins, behind James Neal.

Kunitz is not Rick Nash, who has scored fewer goals but is a two-time Olympian. He is not Patrick Sharp, who is on his way to a third 30-goal season in four years and has played to the left side of Chicago's Jonathan Toews, the Most Outstanding Player at the 2010 Vancouver Games.

“I'm sure he has a spot,” Penguins goalie Marc-Andre Fleury said. “But there's so many good (Canadian) players.”

Working for Kunitz is his reputation as a crafty net-front presence, a gritty puck-retrieval specialist, an astute penalty killer and a fast and furious forechecker.

“He's not the biggest guy, but he's just so quick, so good with his stick,” Fleury said. “The way he uses his feet, he's always a little sneaky.

“He's very effective.”

Kunitz also has unmatched chemistry with Crosby — Canada's likely captain, the face of hockey in their native land and the golden goal scorer four years ago.

Crosby said he has not heard whether Yzerman plans to touch base about Kunitz. Crosby has resisted publicly lobbying out of respect for the selection process.

Still, Canada will unveil its roster Tuesday, and its main man knows there is an advantage to being comfortable with linemates in a short tournament such as the Olympics.

He did not have that at the Vancouver Games, which he finished with four goals and seven points in as many games.

Crosby also knows what chemistry with Kunitz could look like in Sochi, Russia, where the bigger international rink will be used for the Olympics.

“Especially around the net, we read off one another pretty good,” Crosby said. “So if he's the one kind of attracting the scrum or loose pucks, I will try to be outside of that in an area where there's not any guys and just kind of trying to get open.

“It's a read. It's not something you can really say, ‘Go here.' When one of us is drawing attention, the other guy senses it and tries to get open.”

When healthy, Crosby has not played with another left winger since Kunitz joined the Penguins five years ago —– and it is not a coincidence, center Evgeni Malkin said, that Crosby distanced himself from the field of “world's best player” contenders since Kunitz arrived.

“Of course Sid (is) the best player because he's great,” Malkin said. “But Kuni (is) a great player. He (can) make it easier for his linemates to score.”

Malkin earned his lone MVP, second scoring title and best points-per-game output two years ago when Kunitz played with him and Neal while Crosby was out with concussion symptoms. Neal scored 40 goals that season.

“It's not just one thing he does. He's a well-rounded hockey player,” Neal said. “That's why he complements some of the best player so well. They all want to play with him.”

Anaheim's Ryan Getzlaf, the NHL's third-leading scorer as of Saturday and a likely Olympian, centered Kunitz and right winger Corey Perry during the Ducks' Stanley Cup run in 2007. Penguins defenseman Brooks Orpik, headed to a second Olympics with Team USA, is curious how Canada might not ice a team that includes Kunitz. He does not buy that Kunitz's success is a creation of Crosby's greatness.

“It's easy to say, ‘Sid makes a lot of guys look better,' but you still have to finish,” Orpik said. “Kuni is a good finisher.

“You look at guys we've brought in to play with Sid — even Marian Hossa, it didn't happen right away. I think it's a huge advantage for Canada if they take Chris to play with Sid.”

If it matters, and it could to Canada in an Olympic medal round, Orpik offered this simple but sure endorsement of Kunitz.

“I practice against him every day,” he said. “I can't name a lot of guys that are harder to play against.”

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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