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Kunitz takes game to next level as member of the Penguins’ top line

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Chaz Palla | Trib Total Media
The Penguins' Chris Kunitz scores against the Buffalo Sabres on Saturday, Nov. 1, 2014, at Consol Energy Center.

Sidney Crosby leads the NHL in scoring, Evgeni Malkin is riding a 10-game scoring streak and Patric Hornqvist has made an immediate impact.

And quietly, Chris Kunitz keeps getting better.

Kunitz is going about his work with even less fanfare than usual, but his numbers speak volumes entering Tuesday’s game in Minnesota.

“That’s Kuni being Kuni,” left wing Pascal Dupuis said. “He’s still playing his game, playing the game he’s always played every night. And he’s producing more than ever. It’s great to see.”

Kunitz has seven goals and 13 points through 10 games this season after scoring a career-high 35 goals last season.

He ranks 12th in the NHL in points, fourth in goals and eighth in points per game (1.30).

Kunitz leads the NHL with three game-winning goals and has four goals and two assists in the past two games.

“He’s a guy who caught everybody’s attention from the outside when he was named to the (Canadian) Olympic team,” coach Mike Johnston said. “You saw what he did there.”

The experience of playing on arguably one of the finest hockey teams ever assembled in the Olympics hasn’t changed Kunitz’s game, nor his practice habits.

After practice concluded Monday at Southpointe, Kunitz took a shot on goal that was stopped by Marc-Andre Fleury. Aggravated, Kunitz skated toward the goaltender and whacked him with his stick until Fleury finally fell into the net.

An undrafted player who worked his way to the NHL one whack at a time, Kunitz refuses to alter his game, working for every inch.

“The funny thing is, I’m usually good friends with goaltenders,” Kunitz said. “Sometimes, you whack a goalie and you laugh about it later.”

Kunitz, 35, signed a contract two summers ago that will pay him $3.85 million annually through the 2016-17 season. And he shows no signs of slowing down.

Kunitz is the left wing on what arguably is hockey’s finest line with Crosby and Hornqvist, who was acquired from Nashville in the offseason. He remains an invaluable net front presence on assistant coach Rick Tocchet’s power play.

“I’m just going out and playing the same game I’ve always played,” Kunitz said. “Over the years, I’ve never changed. And I’ve played with a lot of great players. There’s no doubt that has made me a better player.”

Crosby said playing on Kunitz’s line has its perks, too. The trio of Crosby, Hornqvist and Kunitz has meshed well through the early part of the season.

The Penguins captain is well aware of Kunitz’s contributions.

“But whoever gets the recognition, it doesn’t matter,” Crosby said. “We’re all going out there and doing what we need to do.”

While Kunitz’s play in front of the net is his trademark, his consistent overall game has gotten Johnston’s attention.

“He carries his speed well through the neutral zone,” Johnston said. “And he’s such a physical forechecker.”

Kunitz predicts the Penguins’ top line can get even better.

The power play, with four of five pieces returning intact from last season, immediately felt comfortable for Kunitz. He already has four power-play goals, trailing only Malkin for the league lead.

However, even though the top line has been dominant, Kunitz expects it to reach a higher level.

“It’s taken time,” he said. “It’s starting to come now with the five-on-five. We’re starting to cycle better, starting to read each other. It’s coming.”

Josh Yohe is a staff writer for Trib Total Media. Reach him at [email protected] or via Twitter @JoshYohe_Trib.

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