Penguins notebook: 'Warrior' Chris Kunitz faces ex-teammates as member of Lightning
TAMPA, Fla. — For nine seasons, Chris Kunitz called Pittsburgh home.
The veteran winger was part of three Stanley Cup championship teams, solidifying himself in Penguins lore for his versatility, tenacity and professionalism. He left after the last season with 169 goals in a Penguins uniform, ninth on the franchise's all-time list, and his 28 career winning goals rank sixth.
On Thursday, Kunitz faced his former team for the first time, suiting up as a member of the Lightning after signing a one-year deal July 1.
Seeing the Penguins logo on the opposite sweater for the first time since changing teams did not feel as odd for Kunitz as one might expect.
“I went back (to Pittsburgh) and skated when (Lightning players evacuated) for the hurricane (Irma) and felt a little out of place,'' Kunitz said. “I think that was the awkward stage of being in blue and all of them being in the Pittsburgh colors, so I think we got that out of the way early.''
Kunitz, who scored the overtime winner in Game 7 of the Eastern Conference finals against Ottawa last season, left a mark on the organization and in the locker room.
“He's a warrior, and he plays his best when the games mean the most,'' Penguins coach Mike Sullivan said. “He was a big part of us winning the Stanley Cups, not just with the big goals he scored, just his overall leadership and the way he plays the game. He plays hard. He plays to win. His influence is contagious through our room with the energy that he brings and the example that he sets with how hard he plays. That's the body of work he established in Pittsburgh.
“We are so respectful and appreciative for what he did when he was a part of the Penguins organization.''
Those type of players are difficult to replace.
“He's a good person. He's a great teammate,'' Sullivan said. “I think he's a rational voice in the locker room. He's been through a lot. He knows how to win. He brings a lot to a dressing room, and he's a terrific player. He has a physical edge to his game. You can move him up and down the lineup, which is what we did when we had him, so we moved him all around. We had him killing penalties last season, and he did a great job there. What I always really admired about ‘Kuni' was regardless of the role we asked him to play or how we tried to use him, he was always about the team and trying to help the team win.
“I have so much admiration and respect for that, he was always so eager to just do what we asked. He embraced his role and his role shifted through my tenure.''
Cole still out
Defenseman Ian Cole remains out indefinitely after taking a puck to the face against Nashville, though Sullivan said he didn't think it would keep Cole out for too long.
“There is still no timeline, but he is making progress,'' Sullivan said. “That's encouraging, and we are hopeful we'll get him back in a fairly timely manner.''
During Wednesday's victory at Washington, the Penguins moved around the power-play units, and the result was three power-play goals in a 3-2 victory.
“There is always a fine line as a coach of allowing the top unit to play through some of the struggles, and we don't want to be a coaching staff that pulls the plug when it doesn't go well,'' Sullivan said. “We want to allow our guys to work through the challenges and the struggles, and this group for the most part is pretty good at it. We had stayed with it for quite a while through the course of a game and then the coaching staff just go the sense that it was going to be one of those nights for the group, so we split them up.''
The top unit of Sidney Crosby, Evgeni Malkin, Patric Hornqvist, Phil Kessel and Justin Schultz was back together Thursday.
The Penguins scratched Scott Wilson, Josh Archibald and Chris Summers. … Kris Letang notched his 300th career assist on Jake Guentzel's first-period goal Thursday. Letang became the second defenseman in team history to reach the plateau, joining Paul Coffey (332).
Erik Erlendsson is a freelance writer.