The Tampa Bay Lightning are down 0-2 in the Eastern Conference Final but not because former Pittsburgh Penguin winger Chris Kunitz didn’t do everything he could to spark his new team in Game 2. Kunitz was the Lightning’s best player in Game 2 as he hit everything that moved including former Penguins defenseman Brooks Orpik, again and again…and again.
After a pair of Stanley Cups and grueling playoff battles, the Pittsburgh Penguins wanted to add fresher legs and youth. Last summer, the Penguins did not offer the veteran stalwart Kunitz a contract. The Lightning, who are still playing, are glad the Penguins passed.
Kunitz, 38, often paired with Sidney Crosby on the Penguins top line but also added grit to the Penguins bottom lines. Last July, he signed a team friendly deal in Tampa Bay to provide the Lightning with a veteran presence to supplement their offensively loaded roster.
“I think change is part of what a team needs,” Kunitz told NHL.com last July. “Sometimes when you’re so close that everybody gets complacent” and added that “its nice to have management show they are trying to make a change to make a team better.”
Although the Lightning are only three years removed from a loss in the Stanley Cup Final, they needed championship experience and leadership. No player fits that description better than Kunitz. The heart and physical presence which Pittsburgh often took for granted was on full display, in Game 2.
This season, Kunitz rarely played in a top-line role with Lightning stars Steven Stamkos and Nikita Kucherov, but with his workload reduction, his scoring touch revived. His 13 goals were good enough for eighth on the NHL’s highest-scoring team after Vladislav Namesnikov was traded to New York.
The Lightning looked mortal for only a short time during the regular season, barely relinquishing the conference apex. This was much to do with the 38-year-old winger that played a pivotal bottom-six role. It propelled the Lightning to attain an Eastern Conference-high 113 points during the regular season.
“Playoffs are a grind. You have to create energy and matchups with all four lines” Kunitz said. It was on full display for thing Lightning over the opening rounds.
In Round 1, the Lightning dominated the young upstarts of New Jersey and bounced the popular Stanley Cup pick Boston Bruins in Round 2.
Kunitz credited the early round victories because they “played the full 60 minute game.” “We forced them into things that are unsituational or things that they don’t feel comfortable doing.”
The Lightning needed only 10 games to end two teams, and Kunitz wasn’t needed. The wily veteran had zero points.
But now, his craft is necessary for the Eastern Conference Final against the Washington Capitals. Kunitz was one of the Lighting’s best players in Games 1 and 2. During two dense efforts in which the Lightning were outscored 10-4, Kunitz was the only sign of life.
“They came out and wanted to win a game more than we did,” Kunitz said
“We have to go out there and change how we play and think.”
He finished his checks and even barked up the Tom Wilson tree. Kunitz pulled Wilson’s head back like a Pez dispenser and tore Wilson’s helmet off in the middle of a scrum. That’s something so many have wanted to do for so long:
Chris Kunitz rips Tom Wilson’s helmet off in a very painful manner. Ouch. pic.twitter.com/ty9WPAvmm6
— Ian Oland (@ianoland) May 12, 2018
Kunitz has made a career of being somewhat of a pest in this sense. He is a guy to get after it post-whistle to swing momentum or even draw a penalty. An impressive element has been added to his current game though. His ability to generate offense is taking a turn back towards the mid-2010’s. He’s not parked in front of the net, grinding to score a redirect off any part of his body. In Game 2, Kunitz also played a large role in generating scoring chances. His line was the Lightning’s most productive chance-wise, in Game 2.
Kunitz is known for big playoff performances and he has had his moments in this Eastern Conference Final, including the goal which will forever live in Pittsburgh sports history.
“When you are playing your best team game, everyone’s involved,” Kunitz told reporters. “It doesn’t matter if it’s the 23 guy on the roster.”
He’s helped Penguins on a multitude of occasions, but one of those other 22 guys in Tampa Bay has to help him or the Capitals will play for the Stanley Cup.
Editors note: Quotes were used from NHL.com and Lightning Twitter account.