PITTSBURGH (KDKA) — When you look back at the last two seasons, the Pittsburgh Penguins have had players put up MVP numbers.
Sidney Crosby last year before he was lost to injury, and then Evgeni Malkin this year; and the common thread for both of them was playing with Chris Kunitz.
Following a recent Penguins practice, head coach Dan Bylsma was asked to describe what it is that sets Kunitz apart.
“He adds a ‘honey badger’ type of mentality to your team,” said Bylsma. “That’s been a tag for a while on Chris. Tenacious, gritty, can’t be stopped, relentless.”
“I think it’s more of a term for our team,” said Kunitz of the comparison.
While the YouTube sensation is meant to be a joke, to the Penguins, it’s serious stuff.
Well, whatever Kunitz is doing, it’s working. Last season, Kunitz was on a line with Sidney Crosby who was in the midst of the best season in the NHL in more than a decade.
This season, Kunitz is on a line with Evgeni Malkin who is leading the league in scoring and is a frontrunner for the Hart Trophy as league MVP.
“I must do a little out there so that they can do whatever they need to; but you have to remind yourself, the only reason I get to play here is because of the things I do,” Kunitz said.
There might wind up being a tug of war over Kunitz’s services whenever the Penguins’ captain makes it back.
“Obviously, I enjoy playing with both of them, but whatever is going to make our team the best team to go out and win the Stanley Cup, I can… I’ll sacrifice myself and play with either of them, I guess,” said Kunitz.
Kunitz may never have been a Penguin were it not for a connection with Bylsma. Their paths first crossed as players in the Mighty Ducks organization.
“For him, I think it was towards the end of his career and he had some pretty bad knees, and when I got sent back down to the minors, I knew he was there,” Kunitz said. “Then, the next year, he ended up being my assistant coach.”
The next step came when Bylsma was hired by the Penguins and he turned on a Ducks game one night only to see Kunitz toiling away as a third and fourth liner.
“I was watching on TV, he went out, ran two guys over and got in a fight in that game,” said Bylsma.
Them on Feb. 26, 2009, the Penguins sent defenseman Ryan Whitney to Anaheim for Kunitz and Eric Tangradi. Kunitz, his wife – who was 35 weeks pregnant – they had just brought a house, was blindsided by the move.
“Wow, emotional would be one word to use,” said the Penguins’ forward. “You learn the business aspect of the game.”
Kunitz though made an immediate impact.
“Scoring, I think, in my first game in Chicago that makes it a little bit easier,” he said of his first goal with the Penguins.
The Penguins won their third Stanley Cup that season, and this year are looking for number four.
If they do it, the Pens will look back to one practice – amid a six game losing streak as the turning point. During that practice, each player wore a makeshift “C” on their practice uniform in support of their injured captain.
“We just didn’t have that jump, that same emotion that we did after. I think just one bonding moment of everybody kind of taking a deep breath and relaxing, and then we started playing a little bit better hockey. We got rewarded for some of the things we were doing in previous games that we didn’t get the wins,” said Kunitz. “It’s one of those situations, it can help you in playoffs – it’s the time that it actually counts. We just gotta make sure we win that last game.”