Chris Kunitz’s first, and likely only, season with the Blackhawks was awful enough before he elbowed Flames defenseman Travis Hamonic’s face Sunday.
It was bad enough that the 39-year-old winger — a four-time Stanley Cup winner — had given the Hawks essentially nothing in the way of offense, with two assists in 21 games. He already was dealing with the harsh reality of being a regular lineup scratch for the first time in his long career.
But then came that second-period chicken wing, which sent Kunitz to the locker room with a game misconduct and opened the door for a pair of power-play goals by the Flames, who jumped ahead 3-1 and won 3-2.
Having such a direct hand in costing the drowning Hawks a game was a new level of awful for Kunitz.
“I watched it a bunch of times,” Kunitz said Tuesday before the Hawks (9-14-5) left for a two-game trip to Anaheim, California, and Las Vegas. “It’s one of those I don’t really know how to explain. I’m happy he’s [OK] but disappointed that it cost our team in the end.”
Kunitz was unavailable for comment until Tuesday, but it didn’t stop others from bashing him.
Flames broadcaster Cassie Campbell-Pascall called the hit “vicious” and said Kunitz “definitely knew what he was doing.”
Canadian sports network TSN’s Craig Button said the hit “cannot be tolerated” and called for a suspension.
Hamonic himself told reporters it was a “dumb” hit.
Kunitz, who appears to have avoided any discipline from the NHL, said there was “no intent” to do anything but win the puck.
“I felt like it was just a weird play,” he said. “I was going for the puck. I didn’t really know that we were making contact, but our feet hit first, and then he comes through. I don’t know if he’s off-balance. My arms are up trying to keep the puck away from the boards, and I feel contact.
“Usually, you put your hands up to block if you’re going to get hit into the boards. [But] it looks bad. It looks unorthodox on both sides of it.”
Will Kunitz even get a chance on this trip to atone for the game-changing power play that ensued? He has been scratched from six of the last eight games.
This season could be the end of the road for Kunitz as an NHL player. Will he even make it to the finish line? Might the Hawks show him the door before season’s end?
The questions themselves indicate just how much of a downer the season has been for Kunitz, who’s also in danger of missing the playoffs for the first time.
“It’s tough,” he said. “It doesn’t matter where you are in your career, you want to be part of a team and feel like you’re contributing. Right now, we’re all struggling to become a better team, and what you have to do is whatever they ask you.
“[If] you’re out of the lineup, you have to work hard and compete in practice and push each other to get better. If you’re an experienced guy, you’ve got to rely on some of the young guys and see if they need advice on different things, or whatever the role may be.
“You’re here to be a hockey player. And until they don’t let you do that anymore, you’re going to go out there and try to compete.”