Chemistry with Crosby has Kunitz in Olympic mix
Pittsburgh Penguins left wing Chris Kunitz (left) and center Sidney Crosby (87) celebrate after Kunitz scored a goal against the Edmonton Oilers during the second period at the CONSOL Energy Center on Oct 15, 2013. (Charles LeClaire-USA TODAY Sports)
While there has been a lot of public discussion about the candidacy of Montreal Canadiens defenceman P.K. Subban for Canada's Olympic team, a player who is generating a lot of talk among the team braintrust is Pittsburgh Penguins forward Chris Kunitz.
When it comes to discussing Canada's top forwards, Kunitz' name wouldn't immediately be on everybody's list. A lot of people might think he gets his points because he rides shotgun for Sidney Crosby and anybody can do that, right?
But it might turn out the fact he does ride shotgun for Crosby is just the reason he is getting consideration to be on the team in Sochi come February.
Finding effective linemates for Crosby was one of the challenges in Vancouver four years ago. Through the group-play portion of the tournament, Team Canada coach Mike Babcock had Crosby with winger Rick Nash and a rotating cast of linemates, including Patrice Bergeron, Jarome Iginla, Jonathan Toews and Mike Richards.
In an 8-2 win over Germany in the quarterfinals, Crosby played with Iginla and Eric Staal and they combined for three goals and three assists.
Iginla and Crosby combined for the Golden Goal against Team USA in overtime of the gold-medal game, of course, but the 36-year-old Iginla's Olympic time has passed.
Crosby wound up scoring a point a game in Vancouver (four goals and three assists) and was relatively quiet through group play.
After the Penguins lost to the Montreal Canadiens Saturday night in Montreal, Crosby gave his endorsement of Kunitz for consideration for the Olympic team.
"Having played with him and realizing all the little things he does well, how hard he drives the net, I think he's definitely a guy who has made a name for himself and gave himself a chance to get in the conversation," said Crosby. "He's a tough guy to play against. He plays the game hard. He's showed he's got a scoring touch."
Team Canada executive director Steve Yzerman brought some existing combinations to Vancouver: the Anaheim Ducks duo of Ryan Getzlaf and Corey Perry, the line of Dany Heatley, Patrick Marleau and Joe Thornton from the San Jose Sharks and the Chicago Blackhawks pairing of Brent Seabrook and Duncan Keith (it should be noted bringing existing combinations is no guarantee of success: those combinations didn't exactly set the world on fire in Vancouver).
But Crosby said he likes the idea of that portable chemistry.
"We've seen it before, I think, in past teams or with other countries," he said. "To have that advantage being there with a guy you're playing with, I think whoever is deciding things definitely looks into that a lot, having a short-term event, having to adjust to systems and things like that it does help to be familiar with guys. We saw that with Heatley, Marleau and Thornton and I think Getzlaf and Perry were playing together.
"I think you see that pretty often and I don't think that's by fluke. I think that's something they look into a lot."
Kunitz has 11 goals this season to rank tied for eighth among Canadian forwards and has 21 points to rank tied for 13th.
It will be interesting to see how much weight Yzerman and his associates put on the value of chemistry.
Kunitz said he's trying not to think about the Olympic question, with varying degrees of success.
"They've got a tough job trying to pick the team," he said. "All I can control is how I go out and play and how I try to build that chemistry with Sid and be able to go out playing against some of the best guys in the world every night.
"But I try not to think about it too much when you're out there. You have to play. Obviously, when things don't go well you second-guess yourself, if you're hurting your chances, but you try not to let that creep into your day to day."