Pittsburgh Penguins head coach Mike Sullivan didn’t mince words about winger Bryan Rust on Thursday night. In five games this season, Rust has three goals, six points and at least one point in each game he’s played since he returned to the lineup on Oct. 26. after his missed about weeks from an injury sustained blocked a shot in the final preseason game. The Penguins winger has brought speed and puck possession since his arrival into the lineup in 2016, and now he’s adding goals.
Before last season, Rust signed his big contract. He signed a four-year, $14 million contract but scored just one goal in the first 29 games. He called last season, “wildly inconsistent,” and admittedly had something to prove this season.
He is making up for the lost time.
“I think he’s played with (tenacity) since the start of training camp, honestly. Rusty’s playing with hunger,” Sullivan said. “You can see it in his game.”
Rust probably won’t score a point per game with three goals in every five but his offensive game continues to evolve into a prominent feature. Rust is far from the rookie who rarely passed the puck. He was a burst of speed and hunger on the 2016 team which relied on a gritty, team speed style.
It’s 2019, Rust is in his fourth season, and the Penguins are back to that style. Entre Rust and the additional layers to his game.
“His speed is so evident and he’s hard to play against because he can tracks pucks down,” Sullivan said. “He can strip defensemen from behind and that’s what he brings to this team. And he has the ability to score. He’s finishing for us but his second effort is impressive.”
Rust scored his third goal of the season and first of the game on a textbook stretch pass. Rust raced out of the defensive zone. Two quick passes later, the puck was on his stick as he flew past defenseman Johnny Boychuck into the offensive zone. Rust snapped a wrist shot over Semyon Varlamov’s glove for the goal.
It was a goal scorer’s goal; the quick transition, getting the step on the defenseman and knowing what to do with the puck. You have noticed, the Penguins have recently been dry on the scoreboard despite double the chances of their opponents.
Rust’s value to the team has never been in question, even as he slides up and down the lineup and even as his name popped up in trade rumors. There were a lot of wonders if Brandon Tanev made Rust expendable. Both are fast, gritty wingers on $3.5 million annual salaries. But Rust is showing an improved finish which is something the Penguins desperately need, in addition to the basic parts of the Rust’s game which serve him well.
Rust played with Evgeni Malkin Thursday night. In the third period, when Sullivan added Jared McCann to the line in place of Alex Galchenyuk, things clicked.
“I think all three of us were forechecking hard. Trying to get sticks on pucks,” Rust said of his line’s performance Thursday night. “We were out working hard. We were getting all of us in the game, working as a unit and able to put some pucks in the net.”
While Pittsburgh Penguins captain and top-line center Sidney Crosby battled New York top center Mathew Barzal, Malkin and his line dominated. The Malkin line had all three goals in regulation and Rust with Malkin netted the winner in OT.
“They were dynamic in the third period. There’s a lot of speed on the wings there,” Sullivan said.
Yes, that line with McCann was dynamic. Galchenyuk’s search for a home in the Penguins lineup will probably continue because Rust and McCann added a linear drive to Malkin’s game, too. Malkin has been playing hard and smarter since he returned to the lineup last Saturday, but the results haven’t aligned with his work. The line with Galchenyuk had glorious chances but didn’t put sustained pressure on opponents.
Rust did. His two goals Thursday night and six points in five games are because the Penguins style and scheme blend perfectly to his game. Last season, he scored only 35 points including 18 goals. If he can get his point total closer to 50 and score 20 goals, suddenly that $3.5 million cap hit will seem like a bargain.
Rust admitted to PHN the new contract may have been in the back of his mind last season. This season the puck is in the back of the net. It doesn’t have to continue at the current red-hot pace but a bit more consistency is what Rust, and the Penguins want.
So far, so good.