Pittsburgh Penguins left wing Chris Kunitz (14) fires his third goal of the game past New York Islanders goalie Evgeni Nabokov (20) during the second period of an NHL hockey game in Pittsburgh Sunday, March 10, 2013. (AP Photo/Gene J. Puskar)
PITTSBURGH, Pa. - Chris Kunitz planted himself in the crease, bent over, put his stick on the ground and waited.
Even as a New York Islanders defenceman leaned on the Pittsburgh Penguins forward trying to nudge him away from goaltender Evgeni Nabokov, Kunitz's skates appeared to be glued to the ice.
When the pass came from teammate James Neal moments later, Kunitz—a statue in the middle of chaos—casually tapped it into the wide open net.
With an almost sheepish grin the nine-year veteran lifted his stick in celebration, as if to say, "Again? For real?"
Such is life these days for one of the NHL's hottest players, one who has spent most of his nine-year career living comfortably in the shadow of his high-profile teammates only to find himself maybe becoming one himself.
A quick scan of the NHL's leading scorers more than halfway through the season includes the usual suspects, including Pittsburgh's Sidney Crosby and Tampa Bay's Steven Stamkos at the top.
At the moment, it also includes a blue collar guy who has developed a knack for lighting the red lamp.
Heading into Tuesday night's showdown with the Boston Bruins, Kunitz is third in the league in scoring. His 36 points on 17 goals and 19 assists puts him well ahead of guys whose resumes are littered with All-Star appearances and whose paychecks come with a few more zeros.
The 31-year-old's plus/minus ratio of plus-21 is the highest in the league and he's turning an eye-popping 29 per cent of his shots into goals. Kunitz, as is his way, insists he's not doing anything differently.
Ask Kunitz what's the secret to the dramatic uptick in his production and he deflects any praise onto a guy more used to the spotlight.
"I get to play with the best player in the world every night," Kunitz said, nodding toward Crosby's locker. "It makes going out and playing a lot of fun."
Crosby, however, knows it's more than just luck. While the former MVP appears to be fully recovered from the concussion-like symptoms that basically robbed him of nearly two years in his prime, Crosby says it's Kunitz who is doing all the hard work, not the other way around.
"The way Kuni's firing the puck right now, he makes all of us look good by putting the puck in the back of the net," Crosby said.
It's happening with alarming regularity.
Kunitz set career highs in goals (26) and points (61) last season while not missing a game, playing most of the time alongside Neal and NHL MVP Evgeni Malkin. Yet somehow he is on pace to surpass both totals despite a schedule basically cleaved in half due to the lockout.
And Kunitz is doing it in a drastically different way than his linemates. He doesn't have Crosby's breathtaking talent or Neal's powerful slap shot. What he does have is an ability to work in tight spaces and find the puck through a crowd of sticks.
It's what he did with ease against the Islanders. Though a few of his goals this season have come from farther out in the offensive zone—to the point coach Dan Bylsma joked he was getting tired of answering questions about the way Kunitz is playing—his three tallies in Sunday night's 6-1 romp over New York travelled a grand total of 10 feet.
The first was the easy tap-in at the end of a 5-on-3 power play that gave the Penguins a 2-0 lead. The second came on a nifty give-and-go with Neal in which he redirected a crossing pass from Neal into the twine. For the third, he used his soft hands to bat in rebound off a Kris Letang shot.
Seconds later, the Consol Energy Center ice was covered in hats and sock monkey puppets that were part of a promotion. Kunitz laughed at the sight of workers scooping up the mass of stuffed animals and dumping them into trash cans.
Kunitz also added two assists as the Penguins won their fifth straight. It was the kind of dominant performance that showcased just how dangerous the Atlantic Division leaders are even without Malkin, who is sidelined for the next two weeks with an undisclosed upper body injury.
The evolution of Kunitz from goal-crease nuisance to goal-scoring machine means the Penguins should be fine without Malkin, at least for a little while. In a way it's like trading a Porsche for a family sedan. It might not be as showy, but it can get you there and back when necessary, kind of like Kunitz.
Pittsburgh spent the better part of a couple years trying to find a winger that could gel with Crosby. Turns out, that winger has been there all along.
"He's not a flashy payer, not a guy that goes end to end and beat guys one on one," Bylsma said. "It's straight lines, simple plays, finding the back of the net. We're going to keep letting him do that."
Follow Will Graves at www.twitter.com/WillGravesAP
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