November 25 – Day 52 – Kunitz and the City of Champions

Aren’t holiday weekends great? There’s leftover Thanksgiving food for turkey sandwiches, you get to spend time with your family (ok, maybe that one’s not always super) and there’s sports abound.

It’s no different for the NHL. Even though 28 of the 31 teams in the league were active yesterday, there’s still a whopping 11 games on today’s slate. Six of those contests (Washington at Toronto [CBC/NHLN], Buffalo at Montréal [SN/TVAS], the New York Islanders at Ottawa [CITY], Detroit at New Jersey, Chicago at Florida and Tampa Bay at Pittsburgh) will drop the puck at 7 p.m., followed by two more (Vegas at Arizona and Minnesota at St. Louis) an hour later. When the clock reads 10 p.m., a pair of tilts (Winnipeg at San Jose [SN] and Calgary at Colorado [CBC]) find their starts, with tonight’s nightcap – Anaheim at Los Angeles – waiting half an hour before cleaning up another exciting day’s action. All times Eastern.

Who would’ve thunk it: there’s a few games I had already planned on taking note of today. Some that stick out to me include…

  • Washington at Toronto: It took the Capitals six games and six overtime periods to defeat the Maple Leafs in last season’s Eastern Conference Quarterfinals.
  • Tampa Bay at Pittsburgh: For nine years LW Chris Kunitz was a Penguin. Today marks his first return to the Steel City as a member of the Lightning.
  • Minnesota at St. Louis: Hey, it’s another conference quarterfinals rematch, but this one occurred in the Western Conference.
  • Anaheim at Los Angeles: No playoff rematch here; just a good old-fashioned rivalry that dates way back to 1993.

We haven’t featured the Bolts or Pens in at least two weeks. Since I’m sure this will be an emotional night for Kunitz, let’s head up to PPG Paints Arena.

 

Kunitz’ career didn’t begin in Pittsburgh, but it might as well have. After five seasons and one Stanley Cup with Anaheim, Kunitz switched coasts as a result of being traded with F Eric Tangradi a week before the 2008-’09 deadline for D Ryan Whitney.

Former Penguins General Manager Ray Shero made the trade in efforts to create depth scoring on Pittsburgh’s roster behind C Sidney Crosby and F Evgeni Malkin, and boy did it ever work. In the final 20 regular season games of the year, Kunitz managed 7-11-18 totals with his new club, not to mention adding 14 points in the playoffs en route to his second ring and the Penguins’ third Stanley Cup.

Considering Tangradi and Whitney have played a combined 625 games between them for their entire careers, I’d say the Penguins came out on top of that trade.

Of course, the legend of Kunitz in the Steel City continues beyond his efforts in the 2009 postseason. Over the course of his nine seasons wearing the black and gold, Kunitz amassed 169-219-388 totals (.682 points-per-game) while playing on any one of the Pens’ top three lines.

Though Kunitz spent most of his time on Pittsburgh’s third line last year, his presence was almost always felt as he morphed his game from one of the club’s top scorers to reliable depth players. As his offensive numbers have gone down (he posted only 9-20-29 totals last season), his efforts on the defensive end have only increased, as he managed 480 hits (3.18 hits-per-game) in his final two regular seasons with the Penguins that both culminated in Stanley Cups, his third and fourth.

It’s that willingness to do anything to help his team win that still makes him a desirable piece to any club in this league. That’s why General Manager Steve Yzerman felt the 38-year-old was worth paying $2 million this season to join the Lightning’s fourth line. So far, Kunitz has found moderate success in Tampa with 3-3-6 totals, but it’s his work ethic and the leadership in the dressing room that makes him such a valuable addition.

Of course, it’s not like the league-leading 16-4-2 Lightning needed all that much help scoring anyways. With a top line of Vladislav Namestnikov, Steven Stamkos and Nikita Kucherov leading the way, any offensive contributions Kunitz can make is just icing on the cake that is a league-best 3.77 goals-per-game offense.

While the normal five-on-five attack is scary enough, no other team in the league capitalizes on the power play like the Bolts do. With both Kucherov and Stamkos contributing 14 or more points with the man-advantage, Tampa Bay has converted a league-best 27.4 percent of its power plays.

Meanwhile, life could be going better for the 11-10-3 Penguins, a team that has now lost three-straight games following yesterday’s 4-3 defeat at the hands of the Boston Bruins.

Though they managed three goals in the second period yesterday, offense has absolutely dried up for the Pens during this skid, as they’ve scored only six goals since November 18 – the (t)fourth-fewest in the NHL. While F Jake Guentzel has been impressive from his spot on the second line (he’s scored three goals in his past three games), a major name that is missing from Pittsburgh’s points list is Malkin, who has missed the Pens’ last two tilts with an upper-body injury.

Even when Malkin returns to health, he’ll still be in search of his scoring form. He hasn’t found the back of the net since November 7 against the Coyotes, resulting in a five-game goalless skid.

With Crosby and Malkin not scoring goals, it’s tough for the Penguins to find too many wins – hence the 3-5-2 record over their past 10 games. Considering there’s been no indication Malkin will return to the ice this evening, it would seem likely the Lightning should get out of Pittsburgh with two points.


On the back of First Star of the Game G Pekka Rinne‘s shutout, the Nashville Predators were able to defeat the St. Louis Blues 2-0 at Scottrade Center in yesterday’s DtFR Game of the Day.

Rinne performed excellently to earn his second shutout of the season, as he stopped all 34 shots on goal the Blues sent his way. Second Star G Carter Hutton also played brilliantly, but his one goal allowed on 27 shots faced (.963 save percentage) proved to the deciding marker in this game.

On only Nashville’s second shot on goal and 2:32 into the game, Third Star F Ryan Johansen (F Filip Forsberg and D P.K. Subban) provided the most important play of the game. Subban sent a pass around the boards that ended up on Forsberg’s stick near the right face-off dot, and the forward proceeded to drive towards Hutton’s net. Once he reached the goal line, he centered a pass to Johansen, who was waiting inside the right face-off circle to rip a snap shot over Hutton’s right shoulder.

Austin Watson (Johansen) tacked on an insurance goal on an empty net with 48 seconds remaining in regulation to ensure the Predators’ victory.

Road teams in the DtFR Game of the Day series have now won two-straight games, but they still trail the 27-19-6 hosts by seven points.

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