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Rossi: Last-minute cases for Neal, Kunitz.

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There is one shopping day left for Hockey Canada, and a couple of can’t-miss wingers are still available for selection.

About a month ago, this space presented an essay about the relationship between reporters and the athletes they cover. Essentially, those words pointed out that reporters never really know these athletes as people.

Nothing has changed to that regard.

Still, every so often, reporters – especially those on a beat that brings us face-to-face with the athletes daily – are made aware, often on deep background, how an athlete feels about something specific.

So, on the eve of the unveiling of a Canadian Olympic roster that is guaranteed to spark debate within the hockey community let this stand as my only thought:

Chris Kunitz and James Neal REALLY want to play for their country next month in Sochi, Russia.

There is no doubt that any Canadian NHL player wants that, too.

However, Kunitz and Neal have never been Olympians, and this is probably the point in their respective careers when they are most deserving.

This is the place where a beat reporter stumps for players he covers, which is something people in my line of work do more often than we probably feel comfortable admitting:

 

>> For Neal, it can simply be about the numbers, and they are better than most people likely realize. He is 26, barreling toward a sixth consecutive 20-goal season to begin his NHL career, and he has scored 78 goals in 144 games since the Penguins switched his left-handed shot to the right side ­– and there is going to be a lot of room on the right side of that international rink in-play for the Olympic tournament.

Neal has 16 goals in 24 games this season, and only Sidney Crosby has averaged more points per game this season.

However, if Hockey Canada executive director Steve Yzerman really needed anecdotal evidence about Neal, he could find it from arguably the best goalie of all-time.

Last season, New Jersey’s Martin Brodeur had this to say about Neal.

“The stick technology has given everybody a good shot,” Brodeur said. “Everybody can fire the puck, and it was not that way when I was a younger goalie. Back then, you went against guys who could really shoot harder than other players, and you had guys with a quicker release than other players.

“The sticks that players use today – you do not need that hard shot as much. The puck flies off these sticks. It used to be that way with slap shots, but you do not really see those anymore. You do not need to crank it up to blast a shot.

“I look at a guy’s release. That is what I think about now as being a great shot. Neal has a great release, one of the best. He will shoot from bad angles, and that is tough because he can get the puck through traffic. He definitely is one of the best pure shooters right now.”

So, there’s that.

 

>> As for Kunitz – well, the Penguins made their case for his Olympic candidacy in a story that ran Sunday. Give it a look: http://triblive.com/sports/penguins/5332184-74/kunitz-crosby-canada#axzz2pRqXONtn

This quote from Crosby about his chemistry with Kunitz is particularly informative:

“Especially around the net, we read off one another pretty good,” Crosby said. “So, if he’s the one kind of attracting the scrum or loose pucks, I will try to be outside of that in an area where there’s not any guys and just kind of trying to get open.

“It’s a read. It’s not something you can really say, ‘Go here.’ When one of us is drawing attention, the other guy senses it and tries to get open.”

Everybody that plays with Kunitz mentions his fierce competitiveness and tenacity to compete for pucks. That was on display Sunday before Matt Niskanen scored the Penguins’ winning goal against Winnipeg.

Read THE GAMER for a brief description: http://triblive.com/sports/penguins/pensgalleries/5335607-74/malkin-penguins-games#axzz2pRqXONtn

Also, consider this quote from Niskanen:

“Kuni did a good job helping on the (faceoff),” Niskanen said. “It wasn’t a clean win, so he goes in and gets it back to Olli (Maatta).

“That’s a small detail that maybe not everybody sees. Everybody talks about faceoff percentage and everything like that. Sid’s real good at it. He can snap them back clean better than anyone. But when your wingers help out like that – that makes all the difference.”

Kunitz helps out like that on every shift for Crosby, whom Canada will need to be himself, which is nothing short of the best hockey player going to the Olympics, if it wants to again win gold.

 

LINKS N’AT

>> Dejan Kovacevic wants readers to appreciate what the Penguins are doing: http://triblive.com/sports/dejankovacevic/dejancolumns/5335612-74/course-win-goals#axzz2pRqXONtn

>> Home is where the wins are for the Penguins, and other assorted notes: http://triblive.com/sports/penguins/5335611-74/penguins-games-crosby#axzz2pRqXONtn

 

>> If you’re outside in Western Pennsylvania, get inside, and soon. This blog was filed before 10 a.m., and it is already nasty out what with the falling temperatures freezing everything. Be smart. Be safe. Be warm. Hug somebody. Often, maybe. That is usually good advice, anyway, right?

 

>> Thank your postal carrier over the next few days. Offer him or her a hot chocolate. These cats, man, they’re just tougher than most of us.

 

>> Josh Yohe is in Vancouver, and he will have all the Penguins-related news on the club’s swing through Western Canada.

This does not necessarily mean I am taking the week off, though. More on that (maybe) later; but you may SEE me somewhere.

 

Be EXCELLENT to each other,

Rossi

 

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Author: Rob Rossi

Rob Rossi is the lead sports columnist for the Pittsburgh Tribune-Review. He has been called many names, but “Rossi” is the one to which he most often responds. He joined the Trib in November 2002 and was promoted to the columnist role in July 2014. Previously, he had covered the NHL’s Penguins (2006-14) and MLB’s Pirates (2006), while also working on beats associated with the NFL’s Steelers (2005-06) and the NCAA’s Pitt (2004-06). He has won national and local awards for his coverage of youth concussions and athletes’ charities. Also, he is a member of the Professional Hockey Writers’ Association executive committee and the Pittsburgh chapter chair. Raised in Crafton and Green Tree and a graduate of West Virginia University, he has covered a Super Bowl, All-Star Games in baseball and hockey, the NCAA basketball tournament and over 100 Stanley Cup playoff games, including the Cup Final twice. Oh, and his sports reporting has led him to brief chats with Mick Jagger and Bruce Springsteen; so that’s pretty cool. He is a regular contributor on TV with WPXI, Root Sports Pittsburgh and TSN. Also, he is the authorized biographer of Penguins star Evgeni Malkin.

 
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