John Marino

Penguins
Getty

NHL On NBCSN: What’s behind Bryan Rust’s breakout season

Leave a comment

NBCSN’s coverage of the 2019-20 NHL season continues with Tuesday’s matchup between the Pittsburgh Penguins and Philadelphia Flyers. Coverage begins at 6:30 p.m. ET on NBCSN. You can watch the game online and on the NBC Sports app by clicking here.

After a two-year detour the Pittsburgh Penguins have rediscovered their championship identity. They are playing fast, they revamped their defense to add mobility, and they have a balanced lineup (when healthy) with four lines that can contribute. They enter Tuesday’s game against the Philadelphia Flyers (7:30 p.m. ET, NBCSN) as one of the league’s best teams and it is the usual suspects at the top leading the way for them.

Sidney Crosby has played like the best player in the world. Evgeni Malkin is rebounding from a down year in 2018-19 and is playing some of the best hockey of his career. Kris Letang has been great at the top of a dramatically improved defense, and Jake Guentzel was on track for a second straight 40-goal season before his injury. They also have had an infusion of young talent into the lineup (John Marino, Jared McCann, Dominik Kahun, and Teddy Blueger) to make an impact.

The surprising star of this team so far, however, has been the breakout performance of veteran forward Bryan Rust.

He enters Tuesday’s game with 21 goals and 43 total points, both of which are already new career highs. He has done that in only 35 games. That is an 82-game pace for 49 goals and 100 points!

Let’s dig into this.

Continuation of his 2018-19 finish

Rust has always been a valuable part of the Penguins’ lineup since becoming a regular in the middle of the 2015-16 season. He is an excellent defensive forward, he brings a ton of speed to the lineup, and he has always been able to chip in offense. He also has the versatility to fit into any role the team needs, whether it be as a first-line winger, a penalty killer, or a third-line winger. That solid all-around play earned him a four-year, $14 million contract extension that began a year ago.

But 30 games into that contract he scored just one goal, and it was easy to conclude that he was one of the players general manager Jim Rutherford was talking about when he criticized the team’s performance early on and that maybe some players had become content with their Stanley Cup rings and big pay days. But starting with a game on Dec. 12, 2018, Rust has been one of the most productive forwards in the entire league. He finished the 2018-19 season with 17 goals in his final 42 games (a 33-goal pace over 82 games), and in his past 77 games dating back to last season has 38 goals and 71 total points.

The Malkin effect?

Rust has spent a significant portion of his ice-time this season playing on a line next to Malkin, and there is no doubt that has helped give his production a boost. Those two have been magic together this season, and were even better when paired next to Guentzel before his injury. While it is fair to point that out, it should also be noted that a significant portion of Rust’s 5-on-5 ice-time over the previous three seasons has come on a line next to either Malkin or Crosby. So it’s not like this is the first time he’s ever played with a superstar center.

The biggest factor at play…

He is getting a more significant role in the offense

With Phil Kessel traded and all of the injuries (including Rust himself) they dealt with in the first half, the Penguins needed to someone to step in a top-line role. While Rust had seen a lot of top-line minutes in previous years, he has received consistent top-line minutes this season. That has been his role from the minute he returned to the lineup, and it has not only resulted in more time with Malkin, it has also simply resulted in more ice-time overall.

Entering play on Tuesday his ice-time average is a career-high 19:54 per game. That is a four minute per game jump from any of his previous seasons in the NHL. More ice-time means more opportunities. More opportunities more shots. All of that together means more goals.

While he has seen a slight boost to his shooting percentage (19.2 percent this season versus 12.4 percent the previous three seasons) the increased shot volume (3.1 shots per game versus 1.88 the previous three years) is probably the biggest driving factor here, and more ice-time has played a significant role in that.

The power play opportunity

Before this season Rust had played just 92 minutes on the power play in his entire career (22 seconds per game, mostly on the second unit) and had just five total power play points. This season? In 35 games he has already played 80 minutes on the power play and as of Tuesday has five goals and 12 total points on the power play.

Big picture, what you are seeing here this season is a talented player have the perfect confluence of events come together for a career year: A slight bump in shooting percentage, more ice-time, more ice-time with a great player, and an opportunity to play a meaningful role on the power play.

You should not expect him to maintain a 50-goal, 100-point pace forever, but if he keeps getting this sort of ice-time and opportunity there is every reason to believe he can continue to exceed his previous performances.

Gord Miller, Mike Milbury and AJ Mleczko will have the call from Wells Fargo Center in Philadelphia, Pa. Pre-game coverage starts at 6:30 p.m. ET, hosted by Kathryn Tappen and analysts Keith Jones and Ben Lovejoy.

Adam Gretz is a writer for Pro Hockey Talk on NBC Sports. Drop him a line at phtblog@nbcsports.com or follow him on Twitter @AGretz.

NHL Power Rankings: Top rookie performances so far

Leave a comment

In this week’s edition of the NHL Power Rankings we keep it on an individual player level and dig into the 10 best rookie performances so far this season.

It has been an interesting rookie class because two of the most anticipated rookies — top-two picks Jack Hughes and Kappo Kaako) have gone through some early growing pains and have not really played their way into the Calder Trophy discussion. That is nothing to be concerned about, either. Not every 18-year-old is going to jump right into the league and make an immediate impact. Sometimes it takes a year. Sometimes it takes two. They both still have great futures ahead of them and should be stars (maybe even superstars?) in the NHL.

It has, however, been a great first half for rookie defensemen (four in the top-ten) and a couple of rookie goalies.

Which rookies have stood out the most so far this season?

To the rankings!

1. Cale Makar, Colorado Avalanche. Makar entered the season as one of the Calder Trophy favorites, and he has not only met the high expectations placed upon him, he has probably exceeded them. He is already the best defenseman on one of the NHL’s best and most exciting teams. An exceptional skater, great passer, and a lightning fast release that just looks effortless and unstoppable. He is a one-man highlight reel almost every night.

(See it here, too)

2. Quinn Hughes, Vancouver Canucks. When the 2019-20 season began it was expected that a Hughes would be at the top of the rookie class. And there is. It’s just probably not the one (Jack, the No. 1 overall pick this year) that most thought would be this high on the list. For the third year in a row the Canucks have one of the league’s top-two rookies as Hughes joins their promising core alongside Elias Pettersson and Brock Boeser.

3. Victor Olofsson, Buffalo Sabres. One of the few bright spots in yet another massively disappointing season for the Sabres. At 24 he is a little older than your average rookie, but he has been a great fit next to Jack Eichel on the Sabres’ top line when he’s been healthy. As of Monday he still leads all rookies in scoring even though he has not played in close to a month due to injury.

4. John Marino, Pittsburgh Penguins. The Penguins acquired Marino from the Edmonton Oilers for a conditional sixth-round draft pick in a trade that few people noticed when it was announced. All Marino has done this season is help transform the Penguins’ defense into one of the league’s best. He is already a 20-minute per night player, helps drive possession, has great defensive metrics, and has helped bring back mobility and puck skills to the Penguins’ blue line.

5. Dominik Kubalik, Chicago Blackhawks. Stan Bowman has made some questionable trades and decisions over the past few years, but this is one that he knocked out of the park. The Blackhawks acquired Kubalik from the Los Angeles Kings for a fifth-round draft pick almost exactly one year ago. He was always considered a talented prospect with offensive upside (something the Kings could use!), but he hadn’t shown a willingness to actually sign with the Kings. So they traded him. The Blackhawks were the team that pounced and added some desperately needed scoring depth. He has 21 goals on the season, with 10 of them coming over the past two weeks. Recency bias plays a role here, but he has made a huge jump in the Calder Trophy discussion from where he was even a few weeks ago when he probably was not even on the radar.

6. Ilya Samsonov, Washington Capitals. The Capitals’ goalie of the future should probably be getting even more playing time in the present. In his 19 appearances this season he owns a 15-2-1 record with a .927 save percentage and is currently on a run where he has won 10 consecutive decisions. He has not lost a start since Nov. 15 against the Montreal Canadiens. His play is probably making it easier to say goodbye to long-time starter (and long-time top-shelf goalie) Braden Holtby this summer in free agency.

7. Elvis Merzlikins, Columbus Blue Jackets. Like Kubalik, he is another rookie that has picked up his play very recently. When Blue Jackets starting goalie Joonas Korpisalo went down with an injury, Merzlikins had yet to win a game in the NHL and had a sub-.900 save percentage. It would have been easy to write off the Blue Jackets’ playoff chances at that point. Instead, Merzlikins has helped carry the team into the first Wild Card spot (as of Monday) in the Eastern Conference thanks to an 8-2-0 record, three shutouts,

8. Adam Fox, New York Rangers. Not going to lie, I kind of hate putting him this low because I feel like it underrates the season he has had. He has been really good. But, I also think the top-four here are clearly the head of the rookie class. It is also hard to ignore how downright dominant Kubalik and Merzlikins have been recently and the role they have played for their teams. Fox was one of two key additions to the Rangers’ blue line over the summer alongside Jacob Trouba. Trouba has the big name and the massive contract, but there is no denying which player has been the better addition for the Rangers — it is Fox.

9. Martin Necas, Carolina Hurricanes. Necas is very quietly putting together a strong rookie season. He is the fifth-leading scorer on the team and his current scoring pace would put him on track for nearly 20 goals and 50 points with strong possession numbers. Not quite enough to be a Calder Trophy favorite, but that is still a heck of a season for a 21-year-old in his first full NHL season.

10. Nick Suzuki, Montreal Canadiens. Suzuki was the key long-term player for the Canadiens in the Max Pacioretty trade, and they are getting their first taste of what he is capable of this season. He is still a bit of a work in progress, but he has improved dramatically over the past couple of months and is currently the fifth-leading scorer among all rookies. Pacioretty is having a career year for the Golden Knights, but Tomas Tatar (the other key player in that trade) having a great year of his own, and Suzuki showing a ton of potential, it is one that — so far — has worked out well for both teams.

Adam Gretz is a writer for Pro Hockey Talk on NBC Sports. Drop him a line at phtblog@nbcsports.com or follow him on Twitter @AGretz.

WATCH LIVE: Penguins host Bruins on NBC

Leave a comment

NBC’s coverage of the 2019-20 NHL season continues with Sunday’s matchup between the Boston Bruins and Pittsburgh Penguins. Coverage begins at 12:30 p.m. ET on NBC. You can watch the game online and on the NBC Sports app by clicking here.

Two of the NHL’s top teams meet for the second time in four days as the Bruins head to Pittsburgh to take on the Penguins. Sunday’s matchup will be the third and final game between these two this season. Boston won the first two meetings

After losing in Boston Thursday, the Penguins had a chance to get right back to it with a game against the Red Wings Friday night. Pittsburgh started slow, trailing 1-0 to the league’s worst team through two periods. But early in the third Bryan Rust scored his 20th of the season on the power play to even the score. And in overtime it was the captain Sidney Crosby who netted the game-winner on the power play to help Pittsburgh escape with a win.

Since returning from his 28-game absence, Crosby has 6 points (3G-3A) and has scored a goal in each of his three games.

With All-Star goalie Tuukka Rask (concussion) on injured reserve, the Bruins are now relying on Jaroslav Halak as their primary goalie. After starting the season on a tear, Halak has not been as sharp over the past six weeks.Halak has started (and won) both games against the Penguins this season. Over his career, he is 11-8-2 in 21 starts against Pittsburgh, with a 2.53 GAA and .921 SV%.

[COVERAGE BEGINS AT 12:30 P.M. ET ON NBC]

WHAT: Boston Bruins at Pittsburgh Penguins
WHERE: PPG Paints Arena
WHEN: Sunday, Jan. 19, 12:30 p.m. ET
TV: NBC
LIVE STREAM: You can watch the Bruins-Penguins stream on NBC Sports’ live stream page and the NBC Sports app.

PROJECTED LINEUPS

BRUINS
Brad MarchandPatrice BergeronDavid Pastrnak
Jake DeBruskCharlie CoyleAnders Bjork
Danton HeinenPar LindholmKarson Kuhlman
Joakim NordstromSean KuralyChris Wagner

Zdeno CharaCharlie McAvoy
Torey KrugBrandon Carlo
John MooreMatt Grzelcyk

Starting goalie: Jaroslav Halak

PENGUINS
Jared McCann – Sidney Crosby – Dominik Simon
Dominik KahunEvgeni Malkin – Bryan Rust
Alex GalchenyukAndrew AgozzinoPatric Hornqvist
Zach Aston-ReeseTeddy BluegerBrandon Tanev

Jack JohnsonKris Letang
Marcus PetterssonJohn Marino
Jusso Riikola – Chad Ruhwedel

Starting goalie: Matt Murray

Mike Emrick, Eddie Olczyk and Brian Boucher will have the call of the Bruins-Penguins matchup on NBC from PPG Paints Arena in Pittsburgh, Pa.

Crosby’s return makes resilient Penguins diligent, dangerous

Leave a comment

PITTSBURGH — Mike Sullivan’s messages can be relentless. The Pittsburgh Penguins coach peppers his team with a handful of mantras that seemingly run on a loop during every practice, every period, sometimes every shift.

They run from ”play the right way” to ”get to our game” to ”keep it simple.” All of them code words of sorts to a star-laden roster that in recent years got so caught up in its own offensive talent it occasionally forgot to do the little things like, say, play responsibly on both ends of the ice.

No more. The sometimes-careless group that was outclassed, outsmarted and outworked while getting swept by the New York Islanders in the first round of the playoffs last spring has been replaced by a team that’s returned to the NHL’s elite through a mix of grit, resiliency and maturity.

Tuesday night’s 7-3 romp over Minnesota gave the Penguins their fourth consecutive victory and drew them within four points of Washington for the top spot in the Metropolitan Division as the All-Star break looms. It’s heady territory for a group that spent the last four months watching one high-profile player after another limp down the tunnel and onto injured reserve, the most jarring being captain Sidney Crosby‘s slow skate toward the bench in the third period of a shootout victory over Chicago on Nov. 9.

Five days later Crosby underwent surgery to repair a hernia. The Penguins were in the middle of the pack in the Eastern Conference at the time, their season at an early tipping point. Crosby had led the charge in making sure Pittsburgh played the 200-foot game Sullivan craves. Without him, the Penguins easily could have lost their way.

Instead, they reclaimed the identity that symbolized the teams that won back-to-back Stanley Cups in 2016 and 2017. Their offensive wiggle room basically gone, the Penguins tightened things up in front of goaltenders Tristan Jarry and Matt Murray. They made small plays in their own end that led to big opportunities at the other.

They knew that to stay afloat in the NHL’s best division, they didn’t really have a choice.

”It was kind of a catalyst for why we had to play the game the way we did, more defensively, less risky and ultimately why we’ve been giving up fewer chances as a team,” forward Zach Aston-Reese said.

What followed was an 18-6-4 stretch that propelled Pittsburgh to fourth in the overall standings during Crosby’s 28-game absence, the second-best record in the league over that span and absurd total for a group that has missed nearly 200 man games due to injury.

”When you miss a player of Sid’s caliber, obviously the game changes a lot,” forward Jared McCann said. ”You’ve got to simplify things. You’ve got to take it one period at a time, one shift at a time and we did that. We showed we could do it and now that we have him back, we’re a deadly team.”

It sure looked like it against the Wild.

Crosby needed less than eight minutes to pick up his first point since before Halloween when he assisted on the first of Evgeni Malkin‘s two goals, an opportunity that arose thanks in part to Crosby’s mere presence.

With the Penguins on the power play, Crosby skated into the zone and fed Malkin before darting to the far post, leaving Wild forward Jason Zucker with an unenviable choice. Zucker could either stick with Crosby or try to slow down Malkin streaking down the middle. Zucker opted to shadow Crosby, giving Malkin all the room he needed to tap in Bryan Rust‘s centering pass.

”Every player is important here in locker room but Sid is captain,” Malkin said. ”We know how important again, like he is our leader. He’s great player, great teammate. … Power play is better. We’re lucky he’s back.”

And determined not to backslide into the old habits that have crept in at times since their last championship parade. Asked if Crosby’s return means the Penguins can start taking unnecessary chances knowing he is there to bail them out if necessary, McCann laughed.

”We can’t do that,” McCann said. ”We know we can’t go back to the way we started. We were a different team at the start of the year and now we’ve found our way and we know what we’ve got to do.”

Namely clear traffic in front of Jarry, an All-Star for the first time after supplanting (at least for now) Murray as the team’s top goaltender. The Wild generated few quality chances while the Penguins built a four-goal lead on Tuesday and after Minnesota drew within two early in the third, Pittsburgh responded almost immediately.

The final margin pushed the Penguins to the top spot in the NHL in goal differential, a testament to the focus they’ve brought on a regular basis. A lineup infused by new speedy, slick-skating arrivals like forward Brandon Tanev and John Marino has helped. Yet Pittsburgh’s surprising rise during Crosby’s extended layoff is due mostly to a shift in mindset and execution.

It’s a mindset Crosby stressed he has no plans to upset as he gears up for the grind ahead. Even after finishing with four points on a goal and three assists, he kept his eye on the bigger picture, channeling his inner Sullivan in the process.

”It’s going to get more difficult with every game, especially in the second half, things tend to tighten up,” Crosby said. ”We’re going to have to continue to make strides. But our work ethic and attention to detail has been pretty good throughout.”

The Penguins became diligent during Crosby’s long break. Having his familiar No. 87 back makes them dangerous.

”If we keep doing the things we’ve been doing, plus him,” Rust said, ”I think that just makes everything that much more exciting.”

WATCH LIVE: Wild visit Penguins on NBCSN

Getty Images
Leave a comment

NBCSN’s coverage of the 2019-20 NHL season continues with Tuesday’s matchup between the Minnesota Wild and Pittsburgh Penguins. Coverage begins at 6 p.m. ET on NBCSN. You can watch the game online and on the NBC Sports app by clicking here.

The Penguins come into this game on a three-game win streak after sweeping a trio of games against three teams currently in playoff position in the Western Conference. Pittsburgh won by a 4-3 scoreline at Vegas, at Colorado (OT) and at Arizona (SO) during their road trip.

The Penguins have now won 14 of their last 18 games (14-3-1), all without Sidney Crosby. Despite their rash of injuries, Pittsburgh became the 4th team in the NHL to reach the 60-point plateau on Sunday (WSH, BOS, STL).

On the other end of the spectrum, the Wild come into this week on a three-game losing streak (0-2-1). Minnesota lost 4-1 vs Vancouver on Sunday after dropping both ends of a home- and-home series with the Flames earlier last week.

Minnesota has now lost five of their last six games (1-4-1). They haven’t dropped four straight since starting this season 0-4-0.

After games last Sunday (Jan. 5), before taking on the Flames at home, the Wild sat three points behind the Jets for the second Wild Card spot in the Western Conference. Now, after losing three straight over the past week-plus, Minnesota is seven points off the playoff pace with a brutal schedule ahead.

[COVERAGE BEGINS AT 6 P.M. ET ON NBCSN]

WHAT: Minnesota Wild at Pittsburgh Penguins
WHERE: PPG Paints Arena
WHEN: Tuesday, Jan. 14, 6 p.m. ET
TV: NBCSN
LIVE STREAM: You can watch the Wild-Penguins stream on NBC Sports’ live stream page and the NBC Sports app.

PROJECTED LINEUPS

WILD
Jason ZuckerEric StaalMats Zuccarello
Zach PariseMikko KoivuKevin Fiala
Marcus FolignoJoel Eriksson EkLuke Kunin
Jordan GreenwayRyan DonatoRyan Hartman

Ryan SuterJared Spurgeon
Jonas BrodinMatt Dumba
Carson SoucyGreg Pateryn

Starting goalie: Devan Dubnyk

PENGUINS
Jared McCann – Sidney Crosby – Domink Simon
Dominik KahunEvgeni MalkinBryan Rust
Alex Galchenyuk – Andrew Agozzino – Patric Hornqvist
Zach Aston-ReeseTeddy BluegerBrandon Tanev

Jack JohnsonKris Letang
Marcus Pettersson  – John Marino
Juuso RiikolaChad Ruhwedel

Starting goalie: Tristan Jarry

Tuesday night’s studio coverage will be hosted by Kathryn Tappen alongside Keith Jones and Anson Carter. John Forslund and AJ Mleczko will call the action from Pittsburgh.