Welcome to the first edition of Penguins Film Room, in which we break down a key play from recent action.
Hockey Canada absorbed a good deal of scrutiny Tuesday when it selected Pittsburgh Penguins winger Chris Kunitz to its 25-man Olympic roster, presumably as a tailor-made linemate for superstar center Sidney Crosby next month in Sochi, Russia.
The argument against Kunitz was that anyone could play with Crosby, whose otherworldly playmaking ability has boosted the production of essentially every regular linemate he’s had since entering the NHL nine years ago. If that’s the case, the Kunitz detractors say, then why not bring a player of comparable skill to reach new heights on No. 87’s wing?
Conveniently, the Penguins’ Tuesday night game in Vancouver provided a perfect example of why Kunitz works so well with Crosby – and why there’s more to it than letting Crosby bank pucks into the net off his stick.
Setting the scene, Pittsburgh trailed the Canucks 4-3 with about a minute to play in the third period. Kris Letang had just scored an extra-attacker goal to draw the Pens within one, keeping hopes alive for an unlikely comeback. The visitors pulled goalie Marc-Andre Fleury again just after the ensuing center-ice faceoff, leading to another memorable Crosby moment:
After that game-saving goal, Crosby netted the lone tally in the shootout to help deliver the extra standings point. But while Crosby deservedly gets the headlines, Kunitz played a huge role on the equalizer, as if to bolster his Team Canada credentials.
Breaking down Crosby’s goal into segments, the play starts when the Canucks win the draw, but they can’t control the puck as it spins to the near-wing corner in their own zone.
As you see below, Kunitz barrels after the puck with Crosby, drawing Vancouver’s Ryan Kesler away from teammate Dan Hamhuis. Kunitz’ dogged forechecking often opens space for Crosby, and it works again in this case as Sid pries the puck from Hamhuis. (All images from here below are property of the NHL, grabbed from GameCenter footage.)
Skipping ahead a few seconds, Crosby’s pass to Letang out high gets tipped to the opposite side of the ice, where Jussi Jokinen pinches in from the point to take it. Look below as Kunitz heads directly to the front of the net, running legal interference on goalie Eddie Lack and hoping for a screen or a deflection.
Instead of shooting, Jokinen attempts a pass to Crosby from the wall, but Hamhuis breaks it up. The puck hops into the air for Kunitz, who instead of trying to get a shot on net, bats it out of the atmosphere to the back-side post, where he senses Crosby has set up shop. Spoiler alert: he’s right.
Accepting Kunitz’ hard aerial pass in a way that would make Lionel Messi blush, Crosby slams the puck past Lack and into the same net he found in 2010 to clinch Olympic gold for Canada.
Once again, Crosby is on the finishing end, scoring a clutch goal that few (if any) hockey players would be able to convert. But Kunitz’ prowess in the corners and in front of the net – plus his surprisingly supple hands and familiarity with Crosby – made the play happen.
Kunitz may or may not shine under the Olympic spotlight, but if Hockey Canada has any regret about its controversial choice, his work on Crosby’s latest highlight tally says it all.