It was a perfect shot because it was kind of a mess. Chris Kunitz’s double-OT winner to send the Penguins to the Stanley Cup Final fluttered, knuckled its way just past an inadvertent screen, rising the whole time, and found twine above the right shoulder of a wide-eyed Craig Anderson, who was clearly thrown by the wavering puck. Kunitz did what he could—the one-timer from Sidney Crosby didn’t quite settle before he let fly—but at a clinic, they’d tell you to keep your slapper from putting the puck end over end like that. They’d say nice job on the placement, though.
“I was just trying to get it to a soft spot,” Kunitz said of his 27th career playoff goal. “The puck fluttered off my stick. I don’t know if it touched him or just kept going right by him. It just found its way into the net, so sometimes you get lucky when you put one on net.”
Sometimes indeed. Kunitz’s goal was his second of the game, and of his entire postseason, and the veteran winger added an assist in the 3-2 Game 7 win. It was a brilliant, dramatic finish to a series that’s been a bit of a slog, and it was tied for all but 3:17 of its 85:09. The Penguins took leads in the second and third but quickly gave them back, but, of course, the lovely thing about overtime is that when you take a lead there it’s yours forever.
A lot had to go right, as it always must, to set up Kunitz with proximity and space on the winner. Some good puckhandling from Crosby, fresh off the bench against a defense that had been out there for more than a minute. A barely failed attempt by Viktor Stalberg to jump a pass, which would have sprung him free for a breakaway the other way. A fortuitous little dart in front by Justin Schultz that set up an inadvertent pick by one Ottawa skater on another, building a screen in front of Anderson. But Kunitz delivered, and he deserved it.
There were, obviously, other stakes on the line, and he’ll tell you he wasn’t thinking about this part at all, but Kunitz’s unlikely hero game kept his Penguins career alive, and maybe his NHL career too, both for at least four more games. At 37 years and 241 days, Kunitz—now the oldest player ever to score a Game 7 overtime goal—is an unrestricted free agent after the season. He’s battled injuries and declining skills, and it’s highly unlikely Pittsburgh will bring him back. He’s nearing the end of a pretty incredible career, and now, by his own hand, that career has another shot for yet another championship.
“He has three Cups for a reason,” winger Conor Sheary said. “He’s a leader and he’s a great player. Tonight was just a result of hard work. That was a great game out of him. He was making plays all night and shooting the puck, that’s when he’s at his best.”
“It’s not fun thinking about the future,” Kunitz said. But he was undeniable. With minimal ice time this postseason, he started alongside fourth-line center Matt Cullen, but he and Sheary made that line clearly the most dangerous, even as a hard-working Crosby shined as the most dangerous single skater. So after two periods, Mike Sullivan reshuffled his lines and put Kunitz, Crosby, and Sheary together—the past, present, and future of the Penguins.
Kunitz and Crosby are longtime linemates, dating back to when Crosby was the kid, before the system produced the likes of Sheary or Bryan Rust or Jake Guentzel, and the old familiar patterns come back. “When [Sid] drives it deep everyone gets scared and you can find that soft area,” Kunitz said. From there it’s reflex, or instinct. Even if Kunitz isn’t what he was, the Penguins trust him–and that’s all you can really ask for from a 37-year-old bottom-six forward.
There’s limited time left—Nashville, another defensive-minded team, but in a different, faster, more physical sense than what Ottawa iced, is going to provide one hell of a challenge for Pittsburgh—and likely not much in the way of highlight reels for Kunitz. This was one last feast, like old times. Not a bad way to go out, if so. Putting his name on the Stanley Cup for the fourth time would be fine too.