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Penguins Six-Pack: Rust Branches Out; Nedeljkovic Remembers

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Alex Nedeljkovic, Pittsburgh Penguins

Harry Neale gave up coaching for a career in television long before Mike Sullivan was put in charge of the Pittsburgh Penguins’ bench in mid-December, 2015, but there have been times lately when Sullivan probably could relate to a classic observation Neale made while overseeing the Vancouver Canucks.

“Last season, we couldn’t win at home,” Neale said. “This season, we can’t win on the road. My failure as a coach is that I can’t think of anywhere else to play.”

The parallel isn’t perfect — the Penguins were a perfectly respectable 23-13-5 at PPG Paints Arena in 2022-23 — but they are 0-6-2 in their past eight away games and were 2-3 in their previous five at home before a 4-1 victory against Carolina there Tuesday night.

The victory over the Hurricanes was just the Penguins’ fourth in their past 15 games, and while they certainly didn’t dominate the proceedings, they did prove that they’re capable of competing with one of the NHL’s better clubs.

“That’s a good team we beat,” Drew O’Connor said. “It shows what we can be when we put a full 60 minutes together.”

Here are a half-dozen observations from the Penguins’ victory.

1. Quick on the draw

Bryan Rust is a guy who does just about everything for the Pittsburgh Penguins. He scores goals, kills penalties, and handles just about any other duty sent his way.

Except to take faceoffs.

He doesn’t do it very often, and he usually doesn’t do it particularly well.

But Rust controlled two key draws while the Penguins were shorthanded and protecting a 2-1 lead during the third period Tuesday.

“That was interesting,” Rust said. “I went in there — I don’t think my career percentage is very good — but I got those two, which was nice.”

His penalty-killing partner, Lars Eller, said Rust was called upon because “we were struggling a little bit on the right side,” adding that, “he came in and did great.”

Although the official scoresheet listed Rust with one win and one loss on the faceoffs he handled, Eller and others confirmed that Rust won both.

2. Puljujarvi breaking out

While it’s much too early to pronounce the Jesse Puljujarvi experiment a success, his play in the past two games certainly gives reason to believe that he’s capable of becoming a reliable contributor at this level.

He beat Carolina goalie Pyotr Kochetkov from near the right dot early in the second period to give the Penguins a 1-0 lead. It was his third goal of the season and second in two games.

“Since we’ve put him back in the lineup, I think Jesse’s played his best hockey,” Sullivan said. “When he’s moving and he gets in on the forecheck, he uses his size and his physicality, I think he can be a real effective player. I’m sure it was good for his confidence that he scores a couple of goals.”

3. Remember me?

Alex Nedeljkovic entered this game as a secondary figure, the guy Jake Guentzel would be trying to toss pucks past in his first game against the Pittsburgh Penguins.

He left it as the No. 1 star, after rejecting 38 of the Hurricanes’ 39 shots, six of which came from Guentzel.

“He made every save look easy,” Rust said. “And that gave the team a lot of confidence.”

Nedeljkovic’s competitive nature is one of his greatest assets, but he seemed to be even more dialed in than usual against Carolina, which just happens to be the club with which he entered pro hockey.

He was the Hurricanes’ second-round draft choice in 2014, and spent seven seasons in that organization — including a stretch during which he was touted as its goalie of the future — before being traded to Detroit in 2021.

And while he didn’t express any great glee at defeating his former club, he clearly had no qualms about doing it, either.

“It’s always fun (to play Carolina),” Nedeljkovic said. “They’ve been a really good team. They still are a really good team. It’s always a great challenge. I still have friends on the team, too. Staff that I know who were there when I was there. It’s always nice seeing them and seeing them succeed. It’s also nice to put a little bit of a stop to their success, too.”

4. Crosby being Crosby

OK, so perhaps he’s no Bryan Rust at the faceoff dot, but Sidney Crosby acquitted himself rather nicely on draws against the Hurricanes.

Crosby won 10 of the first 11 he took Tuesday, and finished the game 20-11, a success rate of 65 percent.

That’s not bad, considering that Carolina entered the game as the No. 7 faceoff team in the league, controlling 52.5 percent of its draws.

Perhaps Crosby will be able to offer a few pointers to Sam Poulin, who went 1-7 in his first NHL appearance of the season.

And while he’s at it, he might want to make a suggestion or two to enhance Poulin’s offensive game, considering that Crosby has seven points in the Pittsburgh Penguins’ past two games, which means he has scored or assisted on seven of the team’s past eight goals.

5. Welcome back

Warmups were just a few minutes away when the Penguins announced that Jonathan Gruden had been recalled from their farm team in Wilkes-Barre.

Now, that actually wasn’t exactly breaking news, since Gruden participated in the pregame session — he has commuted to and from the northeast corner of Pennsylvania quite a few times, but still needs more than a few minutes to make the trip¬† — and ultimately was deployed on left wing of the fourth line, alongside Poulin and Puljujarvi.

Although Gruden wasn’t credited with any of the Pittsburgh Penguins’ 22 shots, he did have a team-high four hits, including a big one in the final period that felled Carolina winger Jack Drury.

Drury’s linemate, ex-Penguin Stefan Noesen, was suitably indignant about that, and promptly challenged Gruden to fight.

Gruden didn’t fare especially well in that exchange of punches but, along with his linemates, did earn some praise from Sullivan, who said the unit “brought us a lot of juice,” as well as their teammates.

“That whole line did well tonight,” O’Connor said. “Gruden had that big fight, which I think got us going in the third.”

6. Hey, I know him

It was a bittersweet return to PPG Paints Arena for Guentzel, whose time there was celebrated with a well-done video tribute and a lengthy standing ovation, but who failed to record a point in his team’s defeat.

At least he got to catch up with some close friends when they crossed paths on the ice.

One of those was Rust, his frequent linemate in recent years.

“It was odd,” Rust said. “I tried to make a few jokes. I think I got him to laugh once.”