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Penguins winger Kunitz's value not about scoring goals

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Monday, Sept. 21, 2009
 

Step into the world of Penguins left wing Chris Kunitz, who is always happy to share topics on his mind.

Following practice Sunday at Mellon Arena, Kunitz recalled a recent trip to the Pittsburgh Zoo with his wife and son — one of the few place in town the Kunitz clan has visited twice since baby Zachary was born in April.

"He was born here, it's the city he's growing up in for a lot of those first little things," Kunitz said. "It's a big part of our life. The experiences we have here are going to last forever."

At times during Kunitz's career it has seemed as though he hadn't scored a goal in forever — a slight concern given his standing as a top-line winger for center Sidney Crosby, the league's leader in assists per game the last four years. Over the past three regular seasons, Kunitz has experienced eight streaks of seven or more games without a goal.

The most recent example of his slumping ways — and certainly the one most clear to Penguins fans — was last season, when he went without a goal in 20 consecutive games (including postseason contests) before his first and only playoff tally, in Game 2 of the Eastern Conference final.

That stretch from early April through late May came less than two months after Kunitz relocated his pregnant wife from Anaheim to Pittsburgh and during the first (sleepless) weeks of their first child's life. Still, Kunitz's 14 playoff points matched Ruslan Fedotenko's total and was one off Bill Guerin's club-high postseason total for points by a winger. Kunitz also finished third on the team with 80 postseason hits, including several helmet-shaking blows in the first and final rounds.

Still, much of the talk outside the Penguins organization concerning Kunitz was about his goal-less ways.

Noteworthy is that Kunitz never talked about scoring struggles unless asked to explain it by reporters. Even then, like yesterday, he was reluctant to focus too much on that negative.

"Those things don't help when a team is winning," he said of public pouting over personal problems. "When a team is losing, obviously there are fingers to be pointed, but everybody handles things in their own way, and I'd like to think I'm team-first guy."

As players go, few earned more respect within the Penguins' dressing room during the playoffs.

Guerin, the other winger on Crosby's line, was impressed by Kunitz's commitment to "doing the little things" during a playoff run in which one of his shots beat an opposing goalie just once.

"Physical play ... making space for Sid and me — those are things that not everybody might necessarily see, but it's a key to our game, it's a key to winning," Guerin said. "It says a lot about a guy's character that these little things have to get done.

"It's not all about the numbers all the time."

That is especially true when playing alongside Crosby, who for the first time this season will be skating with wingers who flanked him the previous year. Kunitz goes to the high-traffic areas in front of the crease. Most important is his combination of speed and aggression — which is a perfect complement for Crosby, who is ultra-dangerous when given the puck with open ice.

Crosby believes "(getting) the puck towards the net more often" will help Kunitz score more consistently than he has in past seasons.

Kunitz, though, said linking his regular-season goal production to success is not a topic on his mind.

"(Head coach Dan Bylsma) asked us to think about that the other day, and you always want to be better than you were the year before in all the statistical categories," Kunitz said. "With a team like this, with our offensive players, you're going to have a great chance to get points for yourself.

"But I look at team wins. If we can set a number for ourselves for points as a team and hit it, those individual numbers will come."

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