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Chris Kunitz's Elbow Highlights Penguins' Transition Away From Beautiful Hockey

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I write this not as an objective observer but as an unabashed fan. Though I may strive to write about the Pittsburgh Penguins with impartiality on SB Nation, in my heart of hearts I am a fan. Plain and simple.

I grew up watching the Penguins at a near-addiction level and have a whole host of hockey-related memories as a result of it. I remember the first Stanley Cup victory over the Minnesota North Stars in 1991. More specifically, I remember Mario Lemieux scoring on Jon Casey while on a two-man disadvantage.

I was about eight, but the goal is one of the few things I distinctly recall from that time in my life along with a bevy of other Penguins-related memories, from the very good to the woefully bad. 

This isn't to imply that I hold some ranking above other Penguins fans who may not have been around as long as I have, just as I'd hope elder Penguins fans wouldn't hold similarly snobbish stances against me. I simply mention this to show that I've been following the Penguins for a long time and that I've done it mostly as an irrational, passionate fan.

It's with that in mind that I ask the current incarnation of the Penguins to cut the crap.

Enough is enough. 

Do any of you realize what you're turning one of the most historically dynamic and entertaining teams in the NHL into?

At one point, the Penguins were a lot of this:

Early on, goals came via the Paul-Coffey-to-Mario-Lemieux route. That combination eventually gave way to Lemieux feeding Jaromir Jagr, which gave way to Jagr to Alexei Kovalev, then Kovalev to Martin Straka, Straka to Robert Lang, Lang to Aleksey Morozov, Morozov to Ryan Malone, Malone to Sidney Crosby and finally Crosby to Evgeni Malkin.

The line of talent going through Pittsburgh, even in the lean years, was long. The emphasis was on beautiful, open hockey, and even when losing, you could feel proud to be a Penguins fan. Ulf Samuelsson could throw a cheap shot at Cam Neely or Darius Kasparitis could redefine what "charging" meant, but that was always contrary to the nature of what the Penguins really were. 

These incidents were in spite of how the Penguins played hockey, not because of it.

How sad is it now that searching for "Pittsburgh Penguins" on YouTube brings this up as the top result?

Not a Stanley Cup celebration or a Mario Lemieux montage, but that silly brawl against the New York Islanders in February.

It's a sad state of affairs. Even sadder is that many Penguins fans, and presumably most of the Penguins, don't understand how any of this came to be. Don't understand why the Islanders felt so aggrieved. 

Meanwhile, I'm left to wonder where all of the beautiful hockey went. 

Yes, the Islanders overreacted horribly and made a mockery of hockey. But there was a reason why they did it, a reason why other teams are so wary of the Penguins now. Not because of a blistering offensive mindset, but because of the Penguins' legitimate ability to hurt other players with great effect.

Not only that, but also a focus on running into the goalie whenever the opportunity arises. We know it happened to Rick DiPietro because it always happens to opposing goalies. In every game. Against every team.

It's happening to Dwayne Roloson right now and it has apparently become the Penguins' new mindset. If that's what 'getting to your game' entails, I'd rather we never got to it. 

As a result of this emphasis on physicality, moments of madness happen. Which brings us to Chris Kunitz.

Kunitz is a strong and physically gifted player with a deadly shot, both wrist- and slap-, and underrated skating ability. He's also a player who is prone to take penalties, typically more a result of his earnest physicality than an intent to injure.

With that in mind, where did this come from on Monday night?

What was Kunitz thinking? Was he even thinking? Was it simply an attempt to put Simon Gagne, a player with a history of head injuries, out of commission?

Kunitz claimed moral innocence, saying that he was going for Gagne's shoulder and got his arms up at the wrong spot, blaming the resulting elbow on recklessness. I just can't buy it.

Matt Cooke, I could understand. Not much psychoanalysis is required in his case any longer. At the start of this season, I looked back upon Cooke's devastating hit against Marc Savard last year and asked:

So, what if Cooke were to change his game now? To take that blindside, high hit, that unnecessarily dirty aspect out of his game? That's not to take penalties away, as those are a necessary by-product of physicality, but remove that extra added malice.

Would Cooke still be the same player he is without it, and, if so, is it too late to rewrite Cooke's legacy? Can Cooke change? Is he even willing to?

Cooke has made it pretty obvious that he is unwilling to change, so that question has been answered. The main reason I brought this old line up was to highlight the "extra added malice" portion.

I never got the same impression of Kunitz that I now have of Cooke. I saw the physicality, the edge, not the malice. But despite what he may say to the contrary, it's hard to see anything in that play but malice.

Well, if it isn't him, then what is it?

Could it be the new mindset of the team? A group-system that encourages play like this? Not just the style of play, but the types of players necessarily recruited to the team to fit into that style? Players who thrive in the Penguins' north-south, physical style - grinders and agitators?

Sadly, a strong core of talent is there for the Penguins to try to build something more. The introduction of a salary cap made it so that the Penguins could no longer cry poor as an excuse for not competing or attracting talent. Some players have even gone so far as to imply that they'd take less money to play in Pittsburgh. 

All of this is sad because I want to just be happy about how well the Penguins are doing in the playoffs against a team boasting superior talent instead of fretting about their new-found dirty style of play. But, because of how the Penguins are overcoming the odds, I just can't feel as good about it as I know I should.

Photographs by dizfunk used in background montage under Creative Commons. Thank you.