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‘It’s a Funny Game,’: Pettersson Riding High, Rust Fighting Through

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Pittsburgh Penguins, Bryan Rust, Marcus Pettersson, Jake Guentzel

WINNIPEG, Manitoba — Marcus Pettersson ascended to the Pittsburgh Penguins top defense pair a couple of weeks ago and has earned positive reviews despite joining his teammates for one whopper of a bad game last Tuesday against the Toronto Maple Leafs. Bryan Rust signed a new six-year contract with a cap hit of just above $5 million last May. The Penguins’ gritty, speedy winger, whose offense bloomed in the last few seasons, has not been putting up commensurate points.

It’s been a tale of two seasons, at least through 17 games.

For Pettersson, it’s been the best of times. The lanky 26-year-old defenseman was a healthy scratch late last season in favor of Mark Friedman, and his place on the team seemed uncertain last summer as the team desperately needed to create salary cap space. His $4.025 million salary was a frequent public target.

Pettersson has stripped the criticism from the public sphere and balanced the Penguins’ top pairing after Brian Dumoulin’s struggles from last season continued into this one. In the past, Pettersson was a goner, burnt toast, lost in limited minutes beside Kris Letang.

It’s been a different story this season.

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“I haven’t played too much with him before — we’re getting to know each other every game,” Pettersson said. “And I feel it’s been good. He’s such a dynamic player. He can skate out of situations that a lot of guys can’t.”

The pair endured more shot attempts against, more scoring chances against, and well more high-danger chances against, according to NaturalStatTrick.com.

The eyes told a worse story. Despite the Penguins’ need for a little help on the top pairing last season, Pettersson wasn’t an option. Mike Matheson, the “other” offensive defenseman on the blue line, filled in well as the Penguins nursed Dumoulin back to health.

This season, Pettersson is not only sticking in the lineup but thriving beside Letang.

“He’s doing the things that we’re asking him do to help us win games. He’s helping us get out of our end. He’s making some good decisions with the puck,” coach Mike Sullivan said. “You know, he’s trying to get involved offensively when the opportunity presents itself, but he’s not turning into a high-risk player. And I think that’s the sweet spot that we’re looking for from a lot of our defensemen.”.

Playing beside a future Hall of Famer (probably) has its perks, too. Not only is Pettersson providing stability beside Letang, but he’s learning a little, too. Pettersson has eight points in 17 games. His career high is 22 points, set in 2019-20.

“Maybe (I’m) skating a little bit more, and you can see the things (Letang) does out there,” Pettersson concluded. “But it’s a lot of timing, knowing where each other are, knowing each other’s tendencies out there, for sure. It puts me in a good spot to be in.”

Bryan Rust

It’s not been the start to the Pittsburgh Penguins season that Rust probably envisioned. Four goals in 17 games put him on a 20-goal pace, but his lonely eight points stand in contrast to other top-six wingers Jason Zucker, who is scoring nearly a point-per-game, Rickard Rakell, who has seven goals and 11 points, and of course, Jake Guentzel who has 16 points (9-7-16) in 13 games.

Over the past few weeks, Rust hasn’t been a factor offensively. Last season, Rust scored 58 points and 24 goals in 60 games.

“It’s a funny game. All sports are kind of funny,” Rust said. “There are times when you go through things where everything is going your way. There are times when everything … does not. And I think you just got to try to take it day by day, keep working hard, focus on those little things.”

Rust began the season on a hot streak, playing beside Zucker and center Evgeni Malkin. He scored eight points in his first 10 games. The speed on the wings was evident, and Evgeni Malkin also elevated his game. However, the Penguins game was a bit sloppy, or a lot sloppy, and Sullivan changed up the top lines. Rust elevated to play with Crosby and Rakell flipped to play with Malkin.

In an unrelated matter, a seven-game winless streak soon followed.

In another unrelated matter, Rust has gone seven games without a point.

This week at practice, Rust returned to Malkin’s wing and played there in the Penguins’ 6-4 win over the Minnesota Wild. He was pointless, but the team’s two points surely eased the frustration.

“I think just kind of I’m just making sure the rest of my game is round it out,” Rust continued. “And I just think the offense will come.”

Rust has also become one of the Penguins’ secondary penalty killers. He’s only spent about four-and-a-half minutes on the PK this season, but that’s part of the rounded process. He’s the only member of the Penguins PP1 that has spent significant time on the PK. Jeff Carter is part of the Penguins’ second unit and also kills penalties, but those two are unique.

Rust’s pointless streak doesn’t figure to last forever, but a few from the 30-year-old winger wouldn’t hurt as the Pittsburgh Penguins begin an uphill climb in the standings.

Hockey is a funny game.

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Pittsburgh Hockey Now Editor-in-Chief, formerly 93.7 The Fan, Sportsnet Hockey Tonight, NHL Home Ice. Catch Dan tweeting @theDanKingerski and the official @pghhockeynow account.

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Alan Smith
17 days ago

All I read was Pettersson was terrible all of last year! His reach and height make up for his weight! Still can’t clear goons from the net front though! Rust needs on the second line with Jake doing the snake moves on Sid’s line! Same thing though on the defensive side. The Pens are the smallest team in the new NHL goon hockey! Still glad they give us some offense though! I will quit watching when the team eventually goes for size instead of end to end!

Eric
Eric
17 days ago

Pettersson still loses the physical battles. And sorry but he simply CANT play top 2 minutes. Its tok much for him. He should be 5th or 6th dman. At Max.

He played good ganes this year. The minute he was put on the top 2…wow..he sucked.

Totally agree on Rust. He really needs to step up NOW. Hes off….Totally out of it. Looks awful since day one