Tim Benz: A stick tap to Chris Kunitz and his underrated Penguins career
Here lies Chris Kunitz’s NHL career.
Began: January 17, 2004 (Anaheim)
Ended: April 6, 2019 (Chicago)
Epitaph: You can’t win a Stanley Cup without a guy like Chris Kunitz.
At least one. And it wouldn’t hurt to have a few more.
I know this much. Four teams won Stanley Cup titles with Kunitz on the roster. Thankfully for Pittsburgh, three of them were with the Penguins.
Kunitz retired Tuesday after 15 NHL seasons. He’s 39 and will remain with the Blackhawks as a player-development adviser.
The winger most recently played in Chicago after winning three rings in Pittsburgh (2009, 2016, 2017) and another one in Anaheim (2007). He also played in Tampa Bay and Atlanta.
Over eight years and parts of nine seasons, Kunitz turned in one of the most underrated Penguins careers in team history. The only other players to capture all three of the most recent championships are Sidney Crosby, Evgeni Malkin, Marc-Andre Fleury and Kris Letang.
A longtime linemate of Crosby’s, Kunitz had 169 goals and 388 points in the regular season for the Penguins. Those 169 goals rank ninth in franchise history. His 23 goals and 76 points in the postseason put him eighth on the team’s all-time playoff scoring list.
He did it in a number of ways, too. Moving up and down the Penguins’ four lines. Meshing well on the rush with Crosby and Malkin when needed. He was a net-front presence on the power play, and he could be a bottom-six grinder if you called on him for that.
Plus, his pugnacious love of hitting defenders on the forecheck was an invaluable part of the Penguins’ success, particularly over the course of long playoff series.
Ask the defensemen on the 2009 Red Wings.
And if my flowery eulogy of Kunitz isn’t enough, consider what Crosby said of Kunitz after the 2017 Eastern Conference final.
“He understands what it takes to win,” Crosby said. “He understands that there are a lot of things that you do that go unnoticed. Maybe they don’t show up on the stat sheet. But he does them every night. He’s a competitor. It’s not a fluke he shows up in the big games.”
Sort of like Game 7 of that series against the Senators?
Which is, of course, where we start as we flash back to the great moments of Kunitz’s career.
1. Game 7, 2017 Eastern Conference final
Asking for Kunitz’s biggest goal is kind of like asking for Franco Harris’ best catch or Bill Mazeroski’s most famous home run.
Not the best shot of Kunitz’s career. But the most effective. It tumbled and knuckled like a Tim Wakefield special circa 1992, and the Penguins won 3-2.
Without that one from Kunitz, maybe the Penguins don’t win a fifth title. And maybe Ottawa or Nashville has one on their resume.
Instead, Kunitz has an iconic moment in Pittsburgh sports history.
2. Game 7, 2017 Eastern Conference final (2nd period)
Max Talbot and Bryan Rust don’t have the market cornered when it comes to multi-goal heroism in Game 7 competition.
Kunitz had the first goal of the game that night as well.
Kunitz was so good that night, he was his own Hal Smith. How about the chip pass from Conor Sheary to get that play started? And did you see who he beat with that flip?
Yup. Derick Brassard. Oh, the irony.
By the way, not only did Kunitz score two of the Penguins’ three goals, but he also assisted on the other one. That was registered on the power play by Justin Schultz. Kunitz also led the team in shots (6) and blocks (3), and he added four hits.
Aside from that, he didn’t do much, I guess.
3. The Timonen hit
There’s no way this hit would go uncalled today.
Heck, in Philadelphia, most thought it should’ve been a penalty.
But during the 2009 playoff “the Honey Badger” knocked Kimmo Timonen back to about 1909.
Is there a small, dirty part of me that wanted to make this clip No. 1, even in front of the Game 7 goal?
Yes. Yes, there is.
Would I have thought that if Timonen had played on any other team besides the Flyers?
4. First game. First goal.
When the Penguins traded for Kunitz in February 2009, they were in tough shape.
They had lost 32 of 62 games to start the year. Sidney Crosby was hurt. Mike Therrien had just been fired.
But before the trade deadline, general manager Ray Shero got Kunitz and Eric Tangradi from Anaheim for Ryan Whitney. He’d eventually acquire Bill Guerin and Craig Adams, too.
Then things changed. The team went on a seven-game winning streak. Kunitz made an impact right away, scoring in his first game against Chicago.
The Penguins won that game 5-4 in overtime. They also topped Tampa two nights later with Kunitz scoring twice in a 3-1 victory.
Kunitz tallied 18 points in 20 games to close out the regular season, and the Penguins would go on to win their third Stanley Cup — the second of Kunitz’s four.