Bryan Rust’s revival helps Penguins find secondary scoring
The Pittsburgh Penguins have been on a hat trick binge lately, seeing five of their players turn in a three-goal effort through the first 32 games of the season.
There was a Phil Kessel breakaway spree in a win over Las Vegas in the third game of the year and a Jake Guentzel explosion in an important division victory over the Columbus Blue Jackets in November.
Just this month, Sidney Crosby and Patric Hornqvist burned the Colorado Avalanche for blink-and-you-missed-it natural hat tricks in a span of seven days.
When it comes to lasting impact, though, the most important Penguins hat trick might be the one that came in a brutal loss to the Chicago Blackhawks last Wednesday.
It was recorded by Bryan Rust and it lifted a massive burden off the back of the 26-year-old winger.
“It definitely feels good to see a few pucks hit the back of the net,” Rust said. “Hopefully that continues.”
It’s impossible to overstate the depths of the scoring slump Rust was in to start the season.
This was a player with a 40-point season and a long list of big playoff moments on his resume who suddenly couldn’t do anything right offensively. He started on a seven-game goal drought, scored once in a blowout win at Calgary, then went on a stretch of 21 games without a goal.
All throughout the slide, Rust kept telling himself to stay positive, but that wasn’t easy.
Rust signed a new contract in the offseason, and with that comes increased expectations. He was also playing a more prominent role on the penalty kill, adding another responsibility to his workload.
Whether he’d admit it or not, it was wearing on him.
“It was a long one,” Rust said. “It was actually frustrating because I was there and I was close a lot of times, but it just didn’t happen. My game kind of fluctuated.”
Rust doesn’t know what changed in his game that night in Chicago, but he’s not about to question it now. He followed it up with his most ice time of the season, almost 22 minutes, in a victory over Boston on Friday and an important goal in a 4-3 overtime win over Los Angeles on Saturday.
He has fired 15 shots on goal in the past three games. He had 15 shots in the 12 games before that combined.
Now that the drain is unclogged, Rust hopes the goals will just keep flowing.
“That’s kind of what history says and how hockey goes,” Rust said. “But I guess we’ll see.”
All season long, the Penguins have been on a quest to find consistent scoring from players outside the team’s all-star core.
They’ve been getting it lately.
While the team has gone 5-1-1 in their past seven games, six complementary forwards (Rust, Derick Brassard, Zach Aston-Reese, Riley Sheahan, Derek Grant and Matt Cullen) have combined to score 11 goals.
Those same six forwards combined for 11 goals in the team’s first 25 games of the season.
And Rust’s revival has been at the center of the resurgence.
“I’ve always been a believer that Rusty brings more than just his numbers suggest,” coach Mike Sullivan said. “He’s an important part of our team. He’s a good penalty killer. He’s a great puck-pursuit guy. He’s a good two-way player. We can move him up and down the lineup and utilize him in so many ways.
“Obviously we’d like to see him chip in offensively for us and that’s part of the expectations when you have success like he’s had over the last couple years. I know it’s never from a lack of effort on Rusty’s part. He’s a tryer.”
Jonathan Bombulie is a Tribune-Review staff writer. You can contact Jonathan at email@example.com or via Twitter @BombulieTrib.