For those who are wondering about the right winger on the Pittsburgh Penguins’ top two lines, coach Mike Sullivan offered a huge hint Friday that Bryan Rust is likely to remain on the second line as center Evgeni Malkin returns Saturday from a four-game suspension.
If you have noticed that newcomer Rickard Rakell seems to have developed good chemistry on the right side of the top line with Jake Guentzel and center Sidney Crosby, you’re probably right.
But this is about Malkin – aka Geno — and Rust, who had been a regular on the top line before the Penguins began some experimenting.
“I think (Malkin’s) play five-on-five has been sporadic,” Sullivan said after practice Friday at the UPMC Lemieux Sports Complex. “There have been times when he’s been really good, but I think his best games are where he’s been playing with Rusty. I think Rusty brings a certain dimension to that line that helps Geno and whoever we have on the other flank with him be effective.
“I think Rusty’s speed helps. His ability to get on the forecheck. His defensive awareness. His play away from the puck. And he has good offensive instincts. I think Rusty’s presence on that line certainly helps Geno five-on-five. In my opinion, those are the best games Geno’s played this year.”
And that has nothing to do with Jason Zucker, who normally skates on the left side of the Malkin line, missing practice Friday. Sullivan said Zucker had a non-COVID illness but was expected to travel with the team to Detroit ahead of Saturday afternoon’s game against the Red Wings.
Malkin – a three-time Stanley Cup winner, two-time NHL scoring champion and former Hart Trophy winner as league MVP — started the season on LTIR after knee surgery. Most recently, he missed the past four games because of the suspension handed down for a crosschecking incident.
In his 37 games, Malkin has 17 goals, 37 points. Nine of his goals and 18 of his points have come at even strength. He has eight power-play goals.
Editor’s note: The above stats were corrected from the original publishing.
“I think his impact on the power play is significant,” Sullivan said of Malkin. The Penguins are in a 1-for-21 slide with the man-advantage, much of that while Malkin was suspended.
“Geno adds a dimension to our power play. He just adds a level of unpredictability. He’s got a bomb of a shot for a one-timer. He’s such a threat. I think he opens up opportunities for others away from him. But his instinctive play creates a good amount of unpredictability that makes it harder to defend.”
Rust practiced on Malkin’s’ line Friday, along with Evan Rodrigues, who was filling in for Zucker. It would seem like a strong probability that Rust will line up with Malkin on Saturday against Detroit.
“We’ll see how that goes, but obviously, I believe we’re a better team when (Malkin) is in our lineup,” Sullivan said.
With Malkin, 35, back, the Penguins have their top four centers available going into their final four regular-season games, including Jeff Carter and Teddy Blueger.
“We haven’t had our semblance of our four center icemen in the lineup together very often this year, so to have those guys down the middle, we believe we’ve got a strong middle with those four centers that we can roll over the boards,” Sullivan said.
“They all play different types of roles. It gives us an opportunity to allow them to play to their strengths. I think the depth makes us harder to play against.”
One other element that Malkin brings that the Penguins have mostly been able to enjoy during his suspension is his presence in the locker room, where his leadership has grown and his antics have long been appreciated.
Malkin has been allowed to practice and be a part of the team off-ice during his suspension.
“It’s great he’s still been able to practice with us, get those reps,” said defenseman Brian Dumoulin, a long-time teammate. “You miss Geno, the confidence that he brings. … It’s fun to watch when he’s going.”