Like a lot of fans, I've had a problem with Chris Kunitz for awhile. It's like when you meet a friend of a friend and you really want to like them, but there's just something about them that doesn't sit right with you. You can't quite put your finger on it. They didn't actually do anything to you. But you're pretty sure you won't be inviting them out for drinks next weekend. They can't hold their liquor anyway.
Kunitz's production dropped off last season after suffering from a broken foot. The injury continued to plague him for the rest of the season. He switched up his off-season conditioning routine when he realized he was 35. (Side note: He really needs to ask Matt Cullen what he's doing.) Coming into this season there were high expectations that he could rebound and be the kind of winger who looks like he deserves to play on Sidney Crosby's line. Because whether we liked it or not, that's what was happening. Sid trusts him. Sid is the friend trying to persuade you that you should give Kunitz a chance. "He's a really good guy! You just have to hang out with him a little more. I promise once you get to know him, you'll love him."
Alright Sid. I'll do this for you. Because we're friends.
I was late to the Twitter game, so here's the documented start of my attempts to befriend Mr. Kunitz. This was an OT loss to Chicago.
The only thing I like about Kunitz these days is all the bodies he slams into the glass. He is NOT a first liner. #Pens #LetsGoPens— Stacey Miller (@SpinMeWrite) January 6, 2016
We're not really off to a great start. He's got a strong hitting game. I'll give him that.
This was a loss at St. Louis. Kunitz had one goal, a couple of hits and a blocked shot. I thought we were getting to know each other and finding a good rhythm.
After the new year, the team was hitting it's stride, which would turn into an all-out sprint in March. Crosby was on a tear and the top line was playing like the top line should. Kunitz was generating a lot of points in January and February, and he was leading the team in hits (Kunitz currently has 261. The next closest is Patric Hornqvist with 160). But he still did those little things that irked me.
This win in Columbus in mid-March was the start of a six-game win streak for the Pens. Even when Bob Errey was marveling at Kunitz's net-front presence and toughness, I still wanted no part of it. Even though it was getting hard to deny that Kunitz has been a huge contributor for this team, even if it's not on the score sheet.
Bob, please stop talking about Kunitz being unbelievable. He'll flub a pass in a few minutes. #Pens #LetsGoPens— Stacey Miller (@SpinMeWrite) March 12, 2016
A few nights later, I attended the shootout win at home against the Islanders which was also Kunitz's 800th game. He scored the first goal with less than five minutes left in the first, and the milestone was making me feel warm and fuzzy toward him.
Our friendship was strengthened during the 7-2 scoring bonanza against the Red Wings when Kunitz scored 20 seconds into the game.
I've got to give credit where credit is due. I've started focusing on the numerous ways he helps the team rather than the tiny, minor mistakes that usually aren't worth noting. I've stopped punishing him for his play late last season and early this season. Really, the whole team should get a mulligan for the waning days of the Johnston experiment.
Kunitz works hard. He's not afraid to get his nose dirty and jump in the scrum. He's selfless. He's not looking for glory, he's out there to try to make everyone else around him better. When someone takes a cheap shot at one of his teammates, he's usually the first guy to let the opposing team know that the hit wasn't appreciated. He's not putting up the points he used to but it's not for lack of effort. He's doing well enough that Sidney Crosby still wants him by his side. And I no longer think that's a selfish request coming from Crosby. That line that includes Hornqvist is one of the top performing lines in the NHL.
When it comes to Kunitz, I'm all in. Kunitz is one of the most underrated players on the team and doesn't deserve a lot of the flack he gets. I'm not ready to give him the other half to my "Best Friends" necklace yet, but I'm finally giving him the respect and admiration he deserves.