It’s incredible how much of a difference one player can make.
In the three games that Chris Kunitz missed due to a lower-body injury, Sidney Crosby and Lee Stempniak combined for just two points and had a collective rating of minus-two.
The Pittsburgh Penguins lost two of those three games, and in all honesty deserved to lose all three.
On Tuesday night, Kunitz returned to action against the Dallas Stars and was back playing alongside Crosby and Stempniak. As the top line for the Penguins, they were absolutely dominant from the opening puck drop to the final buzzer.
The three combined for three goals (one from each), four assists and were a collective plus-seven. The Stars had no idea how to contain the trio, which is a problem that will more than likely be a consistent issue for many teams without a dominant defensive pairing.
After playing arguably his worst two games this season, Crosby looked like a whole new player with Kunitz back in the lineup. He was flying up and down the ice and could have easily ended the night with five or six points. At one point, Crosby skated around both Stars defensemen like they weren’t even there.
When Crosby is on, he’s a man among boys.
Kunitz also lit a fire under Stempniak, who looked lost at times while Kunitz was sitting out. Stempniak played by far his best game as a member of the Penguins against the Stars. He even notched his first goal with the team on an incredible effort. After the puck hit the back of the net, Stempniak flew through the air after getting hit from behind, but the smile on his face told the whole story – the monkey was finally off his back.
Crosby is the best player in the world no matter who he is playing with, but having Kunitz back will always make him shine even brighter. Add in how much more confidence Stempniak plays with when Kunitz is in the lineup, and you have perhaps the most dangerous line in the NHL.
The Penguins still need to focus on getting secondary scoring, but with Kunitz back on the ice the top line will finally be able to flourish to their maximum potential.