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Back in 2009, the Pittsburgh Penguins trended all the way to fulfill their potential of being Stanley Cup Champions in the NHL. While Sidney Crosby continues to lead the Pens forward, the unsung hero of the season so far has arguably been Chris Kunitz. Back in 2009, while Crosby, Marc-Andre Fleury, Evgeni Malkin and co were enjoying the spotlight being on them as Champions, that same season, Chris Kunitz made his debut for them. It was an understated affair after making a move over the Anaheim Ducks. During the regular season, Kunitz posted 18 points in twenty regular season matches with his new team. Not a bad start at all, contributing in his first two full seasons following, Kunitz posted 48 and then 61 points for Pittsburgh.
In the shortened 2012/13 NHL season, things have gone stellar for Kunitz. After helping the Pens go on a ten match winning streak, Kunitz had outshone Sidney Crosby in the goalscoring department, netting 18 goals from his first 31 games of the season, posting 40 points in those matches. Suddenly Kunitz has become a more vital part of the Pittsburg machine than he could ever have been expected to have been when he was picked up. His goals have helped carry him to the highest +/- on the side for the season, outshining the clutch talent around him. Has it simply been a case of Kunitz coming out of the blocks faster than ever in the contracted season? Has the sprint to the play-offs contributed to Kunitz having a career year?
It’s not as if the goals have been there with any proficiency before for Kunitz. No-one was betting on him to be topping the goalscoring charts alongside the likes of teammate Crosby and Steven Stamkos. It hasn’t been the flashy developing of Crosby like stick handling and eye for goal, it has simply been a matter of a man, who could be described as being a club collar player, simply getting his head down and being in the right place at the right time, more often than not. The puck has been finding him and he simply has developed the knack of putting it between the pipes. It hasn’t been a stellar transformation, it has been fortune which Kunitz credits as being down to playing with some of the best players in the world.
Of Kunitz’s first eighteen goals for the season, fourteen of them had been contributed by Crosby. There’s no coincidence that the time on the ice alongside Sid the Kid has contributed largely towards the figures of Kunitz this season. There is extra time on the power play units alongside Crosby as well when Evgeni Malkin isn’t available, so while he is on course to set career highs in what will just be a season of 48 matches, and the playmaking skills of Crosby alongside him, with whom he has developed an incredible chemistry and understanding, one has to wonder if it is it all down to Crosby? If so, what is that taking away from Kunitz? He deserves more credit than that, notably the hard work that Kunitz naturally puts in to park himself in front of the goal. He will do the dirty work and fight for his rewards there.
Grinding Glass is Golden
So you have the chemistry of Kunitz and Crosby being the driving force behind the Penguins, and it’s no surprise that the latter is up there. But where are the other clutch players in the Pens squad that could project them to another Stanley Cup title? Skip past the Malkins, Letangs and Dupuis of the side and drop all the way down to Tanner Glass. Thirty one matches played in the season and Tanner had yet to record a single point on the season. The left winger was only one of two players who are in the negative in the plus/minus column for the Pens this season. But how the Pens need him, an unsung hero of the side and without him, they would be a lot worse off in their season. It may not seem like Glass is a big part in the Penguins play off push, but he is there doing all the grinding work and helping out as a key defensive component for the Pens.
He is there doing the grinding and because the Penguins play all out, be it going forward or collapsing in defence, Glass brings a lot of balance to the side. His story is the total opposite of what has happened to Kunitz this season, but it is two sides of the same coin. Kunitz has been grabbing the highlights and headlines while Glass has been doing just as much valuable work in holding the team up. Grinder Glass, who is not adverse to throwing down some aggressive action, is vital for the Penguins when those big momentum shifts are needed. When the puck just isn’t sticking to the the superstars of the side, when the Pens are struggling for a foothold in a game, this is where the power of Glass comes in. He’ll get in there, work back for it and do whatever is necessary to give the Pens momentum. A fourth line player he may be, but good enough to go up against any superstar. The likes of Kunitz and Crosby wouldn’t like to come up against him, if Glass were on an opposing team. That is his massive value.
Steady Sutter Shining
So you have the goals of Kunitz and the rock of Glass, two surprising stars of this season’s run for the Penguins. So what about the in-between? Where is the balance player gelling the team together in between them? Turn all eyes to number sixteen Brandon Sutter. He moved over from Carolina and wasted no time establishing himself in the lineup of the Penguins. He is the fulcrum that allows the balance in the team between Crosby and Glass to really perform. Sitting in the center, The Penguins don’t have a better two way player on their books than Sutter. He is not going to score the goals that shoot and power the Penguins to favourites in the Stanley Cup betting, but he is weighing in with a very healthy contribution, already netting 8 goals in his first 31 matches for the club and hitting a solid plus/minus stat.
The 24 year old is a pivotal player in the Penguins set up. Drafted 11th in the 2007 entry draft, Sutter has massive potential. As well as a knack for shooting the puck when half a chance opens up in front of him, the work that he does in skating back is immense. He is a rock, he is clutch at both ends of the ice and take him out of the line up and you have some big skates to fill. His face-off ability has been vitally important for the Penguins, especially on the power play to create extra chances on the second unit. An immediate blend with the Penguins young Sutter made. He could be clutch in the lineup for a long while yet. It’s not just all about the superstars, its about those blue collar guys who, grind away and will quietly carry the side on their shoulders.
Karl is a pro football blogger who helps people find the best odds.