Bryan Rust capped a hat trick with an empty-net goal, and the Pittsburgh Penguins (22-11-2) pulled to within two points of the New York Islanders and Washington Capitals atop the MassMutual East Division with a 6-3 win over New York on Saturday night at PPG Paints Arena.
Rust was the star of the show as hats hit the ice from the 2800 fans.
The Penguins lineup beset by injuries included rookie Radim Zohorna as the fourth-line center but looked like the same depth-scoring team that beat the Buffalo Sabres twice this week. They dodged the New York defensive structure for a pair of first-period goals.
Five minutes into the game, the Penguins makeshift third line centered by recent AHL recall Frederick Gaudreau did its best impersonation of the Russian Red Army with a lighting fast end-to-end rush on three passes begun by winger Colton Sceviour. After Sam Lafferty raced past the New York traffic cones, Frederick Gaudreau(1) one-timed Lafferty’s saucer pass.
“Unbelievable play on the wall by (Sceviour). That’s an incredible hard play to make,” Lafferty said. “He couldn’t have put it in a better spot for me. He made my job pretty easy. I just had to get it over to Freddy, and he did the rest.”
Later in the first period, Jared McCann ignored the stop signs and charged into the New York zone one-on-five. Amazingly, McCann lost the puck, but it caromed back to him. He laid a soft pass for Evan Rodrigues, who trailed the play. Rodrigues (4) whipped a wrister past Ilya Sorokin. 2-0.
The Penguins offensive madness didn’t stop after the first period, either. They added three more goals in the middle period and chased Sorokin, who gave up the first four goals on just nine shots.
Sidney Crosby had a goal and an assist in the second period. About five minutes into the second period, the Penguins power play scored their first of two goals. Jake Guentzel created some havoc in front of Sorokin, Kris Letang faked one shot before creating a shot lane with a nifty moonwalk on the blue line, and Crosby (14) chipped the rebound home. 3-0.
In the six games since Evgeni Malkin suffered a lower-body injury, Crosby has 11 points (3g, 8a).
A couple of minutes later, Rust scored two goals 2:03 apart.
“We were definitely opportunistic there in the first. We made some really good plays for some goals,” Rust said. “…I think in the second we were on our toes a little bit more, played a little bit more in the o-zone and drew some penalties. We got some big goals on the powerplays and I think we just had to the puck a lot more.”
First, Rust scored a power-play goal. Crosby set up Rust (12) in the slot, and the Penguins winger zipped it through Sorokin’s five-hole for a four-goal lead.
Two minutes later, Rust (14) got a couple of whacks at a rebound in the crease. The second one lit the lamp and essentially put the dagger through the Islanders heart. 5-0.
New York top-line center Mathew Barzal did break the shutout later in the second period. As the Penguins changed, Barzal (10) scooped a loose puck out of the defensive zone and blew past changing Penguins defenders for a breakaway goal.
Anthony Beauvillier (6) pulled the Islanders within three when he buried Barzal’s rebound early in the third period. With the goalie pulled, Jordan Eberle (11) scored a garbage-time goal with a couple of minutes remaining to make the score a more respectable 5-3.
Then Rust (15) scored the empty netter.
Mark Jankowski joined the list of Penguins centers out of the lineup as he was added to the COVID protocols. Brandon Tanev, who skated Saturday morning with Skills Coach Ty Hennes, was also listed in the protocol.
Pittsburgh Penguins goalie Tristan Jarry stopped 29 of 32.
Varlamov made 10 saves and allowed one goal after he relieved Sorokin.
Sir Freddy was flying in the first period and burnished his credentials for an extended NHL stay. To see a fourth-line Penguins center flying up and down the ice and finishing chances hasn’t happened since a senior fellow named Matt Cullen.
In fairness, Gaudreau played third-line center on Saturday because of Jankowski’s absence. He also had two takeaways.
Has there been a more reliable offensive producer this season beyond Sidney Crosby than Rust? The Penguins gritty, speedy, and now offensively gifted winger not only scored a pair of goals, but he also created those chances.
“…He’s a clutch guy. He’s a guy that likes when the stakes are high,” Kris Letang said. “He likes to get out there and make a difference. So it’s fun. It’s fun to see and it’s fun to see him getting rewarded…”
Rust opened the ice for the Crosby line and finished the chances.
The Pittsburgh Penguins need their captain, and he’s coming through. He was irrepressible on Saturday. Crosby and Rust allowed the rest of the lineup to settle into new roles without pressure.