Chris Kunitz, as it turns out, had some waiting in reserve.
With the Pittsburgh Penguins being pushed further to the limit than at any point over their last two postseason runs, Kunitz — a player without a goal in 34 games across nearly 100 nights — provided an improbable rescue in Thursday’s memorable Game 7 of the Eastern Conference Final vs. the Ottawa Senators.
He scored twice, ending a game that moved at a frenetic pace with an off-speed one-time shot off a feed from Sidney Crosby that floated by Jean-Gabriel Pageau and over the shoulder of Craig Anderson five minutes into double overtime.
With that, Kunitz supplied his team the opportunity to defend its Stanley Cup versus the Western Conference champion Nashville Predators, and compete for the opportunity to become the first team in nearly two decades to repeat.
True to form, Kunitz offered a rather modest account of his sudden contribution, and the biggest goal the Penguins scored this season.
“I was just trying to get into a soft spot,” he said after the game, speaking with NBC’s Pierre McGuire. “The puck fluttered off my stick a little, I don’t know if it touched (Pageau) or kept going right in, but it looked like there was a good screen on the goal, it looked like he maybe fell down, it just found its way into the net.”
“Sometimes you just get lucky when you put one one net.”
Kunitz’s wind-up would indicate that he didn’t plan the deception that was needed on this night, as Anderson followed up his sublime 45-save performance in Game 6 with another 39 denials before being fooled. But while Kunitz was certainly a bit fortunate to have the winner flutter off his blade just so, he absolutely deserved the outcome that he delivered the Penguins.
Kunitz played an integral role on all three of Pittsburgh’s goals, which each broke a deadlock at the time.
Pittsburgh scored its first when Conor Sheary delivered a beautiful tip pass into space for Kunitz, and the two solved Erik Karlsson on a two-on-one rush with two quick passes inside the Ottawa end. Then in the third, with Pittsburgh on its first power play of the night, Kunitz set a perfect screen in front as Justin Schultz wound up at the top of the umbrella, leaving Anderson guessing at the target while the defenseman struck the inside of the post perfectly on the side the netminder had vacated.
Not a passenger, but by no means driving the bus in this postseason run (which has featured plenty more bumps than the one previous), Kunitz’s unmistakable dominance in Game 7 came unannounced.
At 37 (and now the oldest player ever to score an overtime winner in a Game 7), Kunitz has had far less of an impact over the last few seasons as an influx of young talent continues to support the system in Pittsburgh built around superstars Crosby, Evgeni Malkin and Phil Kessel.
But while no longer regularly counted on to deliver production in a top-six role, the Penguins know they have a reliable, versatile and still very capable asset that can move up and down the lineup, and, more importantly, deliver in essential moments.
“I think he’s got that knack for being a big-game player,” Crosby said of Kunitz, according to NHL.com’s Wes Crosby. “He does so many little things, and probably a lot of things go unnoticed, but I don’t think those two goals will go unnoticed, a huge one in overtime there to get us moving on.”
Kunitz’s winner gives Pittsburgh the unique chance to repeat in the salary cap era, as well as the opportunity to continue crowding his own mantle.
He has quietly had a superb, highly decorated career, having won three Stanley Cups (two with Pittsburgh, and one with Anaheim), and also scoring for Canada in its gold-medal triumph over Sweden in the 2014 Olympic final.
Tonight’s moment won’t compare to those, but it may be one he’ll be reminded of in a few weeks if he ends up hoisting Lord Stanley for a fourth time.
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