The dominant storyline of the Pittsburgh Penguins season has been injuries. Evgeni Malkin and Alex Galchenyuk had a promising training camp. Then injuries claimed them. A couple of games after Malkin returned, Sidney Crosby was injured. Shortly after Jake Guentzel was named to his first All-Star Game, he was gone for the season.
Bryan Rust has also missed time with a pair of injuries, but this week he not only surpassed all previous career-highs for points and goals, he broke through a magic milestone and scored his 20th goal of the season.
Rust has grown as a player and a locker room presence more than any player I’ve covered. In 2016, when he legitimately got his chance in the NHL, Rust had speed but not much vision nor hands. Except for big goals in big games, he wasn’t an offensive threat. And now look at him, a 20-goal scorer who is doing it the right way. This is a hot streak, but Rust is also doing things he’s never done before.
“Try not to think about it,” he told PHN last month when we asked about his newfound offensive prowess.
Rust now consistently puts himself in a good scoring position. He’s holding the puck for the extra heartbeat to make a better shot. And, as he did Friday night for No. 20, he’s making good shots.
“It’s pretty cool. It’s definitely quote-unquote milestone things. Once you get closer and closer you look at it as somewhere you want to be,” Rust said. “I think over the past few years, I’ve gotten close, but whether it’s injuries or just not being able to put a few more in the net, I’ve not been able to do it. So it’s pretty special to be able to do it and be able to do it here.”
The “here” Rust is referring is to his hometown. Rust was born in Pontiac, Michigan, which Steelers fans know is part of the greater Detroit area. And Rust scored his milestone marker on the annual Dad’s Trip, so his father was in attendance.
This season, Rust has 20 goals in just 34 games. To extrapolate how prolific Rust has been, that is a 48-goal pace over an 82-game season. He also has two more seasons on his four-year, $14 million contract, which began last season.
Does anyone else remember thinking $3.5 million for a 15-goal grinder was a slight overpay? I’ll raise my hand with you. I think I wrote that it was a $500,000 to $1 million overpay. Now, it’s one of the best bargains in the league. It’s also just another example of Jim Rutherford being right, and most of us being wrong.
“I think scoring one goal every four games (to reach 20 in a season), it pretty tough, especially with how good everybody is and how deep every team is,” Rust said.
Scoring one goal every four games is hard. Scoring one goal for every .58 games is even tougher. Rust’s emergence was the perfect complement to Jake Guentzel’s offensive output on the Penguins’ top line. Now, it’s one of the replacements.
Kris Letang, Pittsburgh Penguins New Faces
One note I didn’t get around to writing this week was from Tuesday morning. As some fans wait with bated breath for a Letang mistake to justify their opinion of the Penguins defensemen, he made a perfect gaffe Tuesday morning. PHN asked if there was a different feeling in the room after getting Crosby back (Crosby had just announced he would return Tuesday night against Minnesota).
“I think everyone’s excited to see a new face…ha, a new face…an old face back again,” Letang laughed his comment. “It’s always exciting to see guys coming back.”
Crosby had been gone for so long that it did seem like a new face. Letang expected Crosby to keep it simple, but “Simple for him is different than simple for everyone else.”
Crosby does have three goals in three games since his return. Not bad for a new face in the Pittsburgh Penguins lineup.