Penguin Playoff Notes: Kunitz Comes Alive

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To those of you of a certain age, that title might bring back memories of rocker, Peter Frampton, and his hit double album, “Frampton Comes Alive.” Do you feel like I do?

Well, Chris Kunitz came alive for Game 5 and it was real and it was spectacular.

The under-publicized part of Sidney Crosby and Evgeni Malkin playing together is Kunitz serving as the third linemate.

Nothing spews playoff hockey like a grinder with speed and some skill. That’s Kunitz. It seems like forever since Crosby and Malkin fought over which one of them would get to play with Kunitz. Crosby ultimately won the fight, but Malkin had an Art Ross Trophy run with Kunitz on his line.

Now, both 87 and 71 are reaping the benefits of playing with Kunitz, who looked re-energized and re-dedicated against the Blue Jackets on Saturday.

Whatever Kunitz is taking, I want some of it. With the focus on postseason goal- scoring droughts (and rightly so) from two of the best players in the universe, Kunitz has slid under the radar. Should he put up another standout performance Monday, he’ll get his due and then some.

Kunitz was the only Pittsburgh player with two points Saturday, scoring a power-play goal while adding an assist. He led his team with seven shots on goal. Perhaps equally importantly, he finished with only one missed shot and two others which were blocked. From where he takes most of his shots – close range, in front of the net – that’s a hugely critical number for the winger. Kunitz also boasted a team-leading six hits.

All in all, Game 5 was Kunitz’s best performance in months, definitely since Washington defender, Mike Green, pushed his legs into the metal goal posts.

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Classic playoff media exchange:

Question: “Dan, can you give us anything at all on Brooks Orpik, is he actually dealing with an injury?”

Coach Dan Bylsma: “Is he dealing with an injury? He didn’t play. No, there’s no update on the injured players, but I didn’t say he was injured.”

I sat near Orpik in the press box for Game 5. He was locked in and didn’t talk to anyone. I didn’t see him walk with a limp. Justin Glock of The Hockey Writers tweeted after the game that he did see a slight limp, so there you go.

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Putting Crosby and Malkin not only gives Pittsburgh an offensive advantage on that line against any other line in the NHL, but it also allows the team to focus on forechecking and defensive responsibilities up and down all of its other lines. Players like Marcel Goc and Lee Stempniak can go about what they do best – playing responsible hockey.

Stempniak doesn’t have to try being someone he’s not when he’s skating alongside Crosby. Not that he’s been bad with Crosby – and he will certainly play along the captain again – but it’s likely he’s more comfortable in a third or fourth line grinding role he’s most familiar with.

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I’m nitpicking here, but if Jussi Jokinen was just a little bit more physical he’d be one heck of a hockey player. He’s good, don’t get me wrong, but if he just held his ground a little more he’d be tremendous. The Penguins have a decision to make with the pending unrestricted free agency after the season.

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There was plenty of talk about the Pens’ weak 5-on-5 play prior to the start of the playoffs and how that might hurt them in the postseason. Bylsma acknowledged that to be the case, but said he’s been pleased with his team’s work thus far versus Columbus.

“We have established the offensive zone (5-on-5), gotten the grind type of shifts, pucks to the net. Last game, after the first 10 minutes or so, I thought we’ve been very good there. Even eliminating their forecheck opportunities by the way we’ve played with the puck and in the offensive zone.”

Of course, Columbus doesn’t have four lines like the Bruins do, so saying that the Pens are back at 5-on-5 play might be a bit premature. Still, it’s a good sign.

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If there was one aspect of Game 5 that Kunitz might like to have back, it’d probably be the goalie interference call he took nine seconds into an early Penguins power-play. Kunitz took out Columbus goalie, Sergei Bobrovsky, while jockeying for position in front of the net.

What I don’t understand is how James Neal could cut between Bobrovsky and the net in an attempt to get to a loose puck in the corner shortly thereafter. Did not Neal see Kunitz get whistled for interference? Did he miss the hint of goalie embellishment? If I’m Bob, I’d have been flopping around on the ice like the proverbial fish out of water after Neal cut inside my crease the way he did.

Sometimes I wonder Neal and the scarecrow from “The Wizard Of Oz” are related.

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Treasure Life!
JT
@JohnToperzer
@PiratesTalk

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