Penguins waste Bryan Rust’s hat trick in loss to Blackhawks |
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Jonathan Bombulie
Blackhawks right wing John Hayden tries to score against Penguins goalie Casey DeSmith during the third period. Hayden did not score on the play, but the Blackhawks tallied three goals in the period.

CHICAGO — A stunner of a hat trick from Bryan Rust wasn’t enough to save the Pittsburgh Penguins from one of their worst losses of the season Wednesday night.

Marcus Kruger scored a tie-breaking goal in the third period, leading the Chicago Blackhawks to a 6-3 victory Wednesday night.

The win snapped an eight-game losing streak for the sad-sack Blackhawks, who came into the game with a league-low nine wins on the season after losing in Winnipeg the night before.

“To not have the fire or whatever, the jump, I don’t know if there’s an excuse for that,” center Matt Cullen said.

The Penguins actually had been building some momentum in the previous three weeks, going 6-2-2 in their last 10 games, tightening up on defense and showing a semblance of the strong possession game that has made them a dangerous offensive club over the years.

With a win, the Penguins could have tied Columbus for second place in the Metropolitan Division.

After the loss, they opened the door for all the questions that plagued them throughout a miserable November to return.

Can the defense corps move the puck well enough to start the kind of transition game the team needs? Are there enough complementary pieces up front to secure wins when Sidney Crosby and Evgeni Malkin aren’t dominating? Are significant roster changes required to make the team a contender again?

“We’re trying to build some traction here,” coach Mike Sullivan said. “We’ve played a lot of good hockey over the last three or four weeks. We’re trying to string some wins together and points together and momentum. When you have a night like tonight, it sets you back.”

The poor puck management and lack of defensive awareness that were a hallmark of the team’s November swoon were back.

“I thought we gave up more odd-man rushes tonight than we did in the last three or four weeks,” Sullivan said.

Malkin had a particularly rough night, going minus-4 and spinning away from Blackhawks winger Andreas Martinsen in the left-wing corner just before he set up Kruger for a slam dunk from the top of the crease on the winning goal four minutes into the third.

“He’s so important to this team,” Sullivan said. “His line is so important to this team. We’re trying to find ways to get them going a little bit.”

In general, the Penguins had little to no jump for most of the game, which manifested itself in the Blackhawks winning races and battles all over the ice.

“As a group, we know better,” Cullen said. “We’ve got to find a way to bring our best. Even if you don’t have your jump, your legs, you still can do things the right way.”

Only Rust — a player who came into Wednesday with one goal in 29 games this season, who was working on a 21-game goal drought, who hadn’t scored since Oct. 25 in Calgary — kept the Penguins in the game.

Late in the first period, he came out of the left-wing corner with the puck and fired a shot under the crossbar.

Early in the second, he converted the rebound of a Derek Grant shot from the right wing. Later in the period, he made a centering pass that banked in off defenseman Brent Seabrook to complete the second hat trick of his career.

Rust’s last two goals tied the score.

Both times, the Penguins gave the lead back in short order.

“I didn’t think any of us expected that or wanted that,” Rust said. “We’re in a position where we can’t have too many more of those.”

Jonathan Bombulie is a Tribune-Review staff writer. You can contact Jonathan at [email protected] or via Twitter @BombulieTrib.

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