The Pittsburgh Penguins are comfortably in a playoff spot, finally, mostly because of star power.
Since the beginning of January, Sidney Crosby and Evgeni Malkin have dominated and improved upon their early-season play. Phil Kessel has continued his most consistently productive and engaged season. In fact, the Penguins are 12-4-1 since the start of the new year after Sunday’s 4-1 win over St. Louis.
Another key cog in the Penguins resurgence is Bryan Rust. He returned from injury eight games ago, on Jan. 23. In addition to playing his best hockey of the season, Rust has six points (4g, 4a).
When Rust is creating chaos and on the score sheet, the Penguins are able to find another gear of offense. On Sunday, his steal and score gave the Penguins their first lead, early in the third period.
Scoring wise, Rust had a much stronger season a year ago. He scored 15 goals in 57 games during the 2016-17 campaign while he sits with just seven after 45 contests this season. But that certainly isn’t from a lack of effort.
With a 54.1 Corsi For Percentage, Rust has been one of the better Penguins at driving possession this season. In fact, Crosby is the only Pittsburgh forward (excluding players with under 10 games played) with a higher Corsi For Relative Percentage this season.
Rust has been even better at controlling the puck as of late. In three of his past six games, he has posted a Corsi For Percentage above 65 percent. Finally, that’s led to some goals, as he’s scored three goals and five points during that stretch. It could easily be more too if Rust didn’t hit a couple posts on empty nets.
However, consistency has still been an issue for Rust. In two of the three contests where Rust had a Corsi For Percentage below 65 percent, he was well below that mark at 42.9 and 38.9 percent. That’s obviously not good, but for the most part, Rust is doing great things with the puck.
Speed An X-factor
Those numbers quantify a little of what Rust provides the Penguins even when he isn’t scoring in great bunches. As far as the eye test goes, his speed is a wow factor. It made him a key top-six forward during each of the last two Stanley Cup runs, and with all the star power clicking again, his speed is set to be another key factor come spring time this year.
But speed is just part of the recipe, as Mike Sullivan alluded to about a week ago.
Mike Sullivan on Bryan Rust of @penguins and how he utilizes his speed to be an effective 200' player. You hear me talk about transitional thinking and it's importance in playing fast. Young players, learn to use your speed effectively and be quick in transition. #PHTOTD #NHL pic.twitter.com/GIwgj9NjZu
— Pyramid Hockey (@johnbecanic) February 3, 2018
When at his best, Rust is a grinder. A guy who digs pucks along the boards and in the dirty areas. It’s playing with that type of energy that has returned Pittsburgh to form as of late, and his contributions in that area this spring will be even more important without Chris Kunitz.
Not to mention his speed combined with the way he plays defense can lead to plays like this one:
bryan rust is the fastest man alive pic.twitter.com/xPjSPKaHPP
— ego (@EvgeniMaIkinEgo) November 26, 2017
Depth Slowly Returning
Pittsburgh has lost more players to injury since his return, but Rust’s health has helped settle down the seemingly constant rotation of players along the top line. With those strong possession numbers, Rust has earned a spot along Crosby’s wing for the time being.
Even when Rust or is linemates aren’t scoring, they appear to be having an impact on the game. Before the Patric Hornqvist injury, Pittsburgh was a three-lined attack again, which led to some big goal totals.
Just since Rust returned, the Penguins have scored six against the Wild, five versus the Sharks, seven against the Capitals and five against the Golden Knights. While he isn’t the sole reason for the offensive explosions, it’s not a coincidence the Penguins are scoring more goals with Rust back in the lineup.
Once Hornqvist returns, the Penguins will once again possess three very strong scoring lines and have a chance to be the team with the most forward depth in the Metropolitan division. That’s even before the team makes any acquisition of a third-line center.
Now, this is all depend upon Rust continuing to play well enough to stay with Crosby. As previously mentioned, he’s still dealing with consistency issues, but should he continue to build upon his performance to end January and begin February, Rust seems poised to be a central figure towards the Penguins bid at a three-peat.