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Physical series suiting Penguins' Kunitz

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Tuesday, April 21, 2009

PHILADELPHIA — Mr. Hit Parade has no interest in joining a long list of popular Penguins players known by their nicknames.

Nothing against "Lucky" Pierre Larouche, "The Doctor" Paul Coffey, Jean-Sebastien "Seabass" Aubin or Jordan "Gronk" Staal, but left wing Chris Kunitz simply doesn't believe his nickname, "Kuni," belongs with those.

It probably doesn't — and, as Staal suggested Monday, maybe it would make more sense to nickname Kunitz's hits.

There certainly have been enough of them through three games of the Penguins' opening-round Stanley Cup playoff series against the Philadelphia Flyers — a best-of-seven affair they lead, 2-1, with Game 4 tonight at Wachovia Center.

Kunitz has yet to score a goal and has just one assist, but he's become the breakout, uh, hit on a series that figured to star MVP-candidate teammates Evgeni Malkin and Sidney Crosby.

"He's a pit bull," Crosby said of Kunitz, his linemate whom the Penguins acquired from Anaheim on Feb. 25. "Usually, he's either hitting or being hit. He plays the perfect game for the playoffs."

At 6-foot, 195 pounds, Kunitz rated sixth among forwards with 11 playoff hits before games played yesterday. He finished 12th with 207 during the regular season.

A role-playing Stanley Cup winner with Anaheim in 2007, he sent the traditionally fierce Flyers a thunderous message last week in Game 1 with his first-period crunching of defenseman Kimmo Timonen. At the time, that hit seemed as though it might prove Kunitz's signature stamp on the series.

By the first intermission of Game 3 on Sunday, it was clear Kunitz had decided to treat Timonen as his personal crash test dummy.

His first-period charge into Timonen in the last game so impressed Flyers left wing Scott Hartnell that he said yesterday, "I saw it on video, and I didn't think it was possible (Timonen) got up and finished the game."

Hartnell wasn't alone.

Staal, who caught the hit from his spot on the bench, called it "one of the best you'll ever see."

He also backed the idea of naming that hit "The Kunikaze."

Kunitz, a thoughtful, well-spoken and fun-natured recent first-time father, said his physical nature on the ice is no reflection of his personality.

"It's just the way I play hockey," he said. "I go in straight lines, want to finish checks and go to the net and puck retrieval. These types of things that coaches tell me is good for me to play my game — I just try to do that every night."

Penguins assistant general manager Chuck Fletcher's history with Kunitz dates to their days together with the Ducks. He managed the Ducks' AHL team in Cincinnati, where Kunitz played before becoming a fixture in Anaheim's lineup.

"Chris has always been a physical, competitive player, going back to college," Fletcher said. "That's what makes him so intriguing as a player.

"I think it's hard to make people aggressive. You either have it in you or you don't. He's just a naturally aggressive kid. He likes to play physical hockey. He likes to play in front of the net. And he likes to finish his checks. That's the way he's been since I've known him."

Crosby said he picked up those Kunitz traits during their first game together March 5 at Florida.

Left wing Matt Cooke, who faced Kunitz and the Ducks four times annually during his time with Vancouver, said he knew the Penguins were adding a nice kind of nasty when they acquired Kunitz for defenseman Ryan Whitney.

"He's a guy that plays with an edge," Cooke said. "You're seeing that a lot now. During the (regular season), he puts less focus on that physical play. But once you play that way, and it's a fun way to play, it never leaves you."

Kunitz has left an impression on the Flyers, whose coach, John Stevens, accused him of trying to hurt Timonen.

"You can tell that was for sure," Timonen said yesterday. "I don't really care. Hopefully, we can do the same thing to them (tonight)."

As Staal said, the Flyers will know where to find Kunitz.

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