Chris Kunitz aims to give Blackhawks every drop he has left in push for playoffs
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It’s probably more than a safe bet that veteran winger Chris Kunitz’s first season with the Blackhawks also will be his last. Is this the career swan song for the four-time Stanley Cup winner, who will turn 40 in September?
‘‘No, no, still [undecided],’’ Kunitz said before the Hawks’ 7-1 victory Monday against the Coyotes in a must-win game at the United Center. ‘‘I’m just enjoying every day. Every time you get a chance to go out there and play, you want to make sure you go out and put your best foot forward. That’s all I’m focused on.’’
Kunitz put the Hawks ahead 4-1 in the second period with his third goal of the season, scoring off a dazzling pass from David Kampf. Coyotes goalie Darcy Kuemper got the hook after the play and was replaced by Calvin Pickard.
More than halfway into his 15th NHL season, Kunitz probably would have had a hard time explaining just what the heck he was doing in Chicago. He hardly lit it up for the Hawks early on, but at least he was in the lineup for 19 of their first 20 games.
Then came possibly the most dispiriting stretch — 21 healthy scratches in 28 games — in a distinguished career that includes more than 1,000 games played. Whatever coach Jeremy Colliton was envisioning for the Hawks at the time, Kunitz wasn’t in the picture. That was a real bear to deal with.
‘‘It took a toll on the mental side of [my] game this year,’’ he said.
But Kunitz wrestled the bear to the ground and has played his way into a steady — if not vital — role on the team, appearing in all but three of the last 21 games.
‘‘I’ve always done the best when I’ve had a role and kind of understood it,’’ Kunitz said.
As the Hawks head into their final 13 regular-season games — the playoffs still a possibility, no matter how fleeting — it can’t be a bad thing to have a guy in the mix who has 178 games of postseason experience to his credit. That’s 50 more than captain Jonathan Toews, next in line on the team.
Toews carried the puck up the right boards, deked past defenseman Jakob Chychrun, traveled deep in the Coyotes’ zone and put a perfect pass on the stick of Brandon Saad in front of the net. Without moving his stick so much as an inch, Saad redirected the puck past Kuemper for a 2-1 lead in the first period.
The assist was Toews’ 70th point of the season, the second-highest total of his career. With 13 games to go, he should surpass the 76 he scored in 2010-11.
No pain, no gain
Defenseman Connor Murphy still can close his eyes and practically feel — with a wince — the pain caused by the direct hit of a screaming puck last season in Pittsburgh.
‘‘It got me in the junk, right in between the legs,’’ he said. ‘‘I had to go back behind the bench because I thought I was going to throw up. That was the worst pain I’ve ever been in from a blocked shot.’’
Talk about a ‘‘lower-body’’ injury.
Fortunately, Murphy was none the worse for wear despite having blocked seven shots in the Hawks’ 2-1 victory Saturday in Dallas.