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

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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.

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.

The Buzzer: Meet Matiss Kivlenieks; Booming Blackhawks and Blue Jackets

Matiss Kivlenieks Blue Jackets Blackhawks Buzzer
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Three Stars

1. Oliver Bjorkstrand, Columbus Blue Jackets

Bjorkstrand played a big role in the Blue Jackets’ fifth consecutive win. The Rangers carried a 1-0 lead into the third period, where Bjorkstrand scored both of Columbus’ goals for a 2-1 win. The first one was unassisted, while Bjorkstrand generated the game-winner with less than 30 seconds remaining in regulation.

The Blue Jackets sit in the East’s first wild-card spot … for the time being.

Bjorkstrand now has 14 goals, putting him in range of last season’s career-high of 23. He finished Sunday at 25 points in 37 games this season.

2. Matiss Kivlenieks, also Columbus Blue Jackets

Don’t blame hockey fans if they say, “OK, now the Blue Jackets are just inventing European goalies.” At least we can latch onto the funny name and prolonged hot streak of Elvis Merzlikins.

Kivlenieks, 23, made a splash during his NHL debut on Sunday. The Latvia native stopped 31 of the 32 shots he faced against the Rangers, nabbing a win. Here are a few facts about Matiss, who might draw a few Henri Matisse references from an extremely select group of hockey fans:

  • Kivlenieks wend undrafted.
  • He didn’t exactly set the AHL on fire so far in 2019-20, going 7-7-2 with a weak .896 save percentage.
  • Kivlenieks didn’t really put up very good stats in the AHL in 2018-19 or 2017-18, either. He fared better during eight ECHL appearances in 2018-19, though, managing a .923 save percentage.
  • The “Joker” mask indicates that there’s a chance he is corny.

Numbers at lower levels guarantee little, but they’re better than nothing. Kivlenieks doesn’t really check that box, but then again, neither did Andrew Hammond. So who knows? Goalies: they’re odd.

3. Robin Lehner, Chicago Blackhawks

Much like the Blue Jackets, the Blackhawks have won five in a row. To some degree, that boils down to hot play from Jonathan Toews and Patrick Kane (who reached 1,000 points on Sunday).

Don’t discount Lehner’s role in helping Chicago persist in the playoff bubble, though. Despite a significant drop-off in defensive play around him compared to his Islanders run, Lehner continues to look strong in net. He made 36 saves on Sunday to improve to 15-7-4 with a strong .924 save percentage. That’s really not far off from last season’s outstanding .930 mark, which helped Lehner become a Vezina finalist.

Sunday presented some solid honorable mentions. Sidney Crosby collected two assists during the Penguins’ surprising comeback against the Bruins. (Check out Crosby’s no-look pass.) Lehner’s teammate Alex Nylander collected a goal and an assist, and so on.

Highlights of the Night

Justin Williams did more than just return to the Hurricanes and NHL on Sunday. He also scored the shootout-deciding goal and led a “Storm Surge.” (Read this for more on Williams’ triumphant return.)

Patrick Kane didn’t just reach 1,000 points. He did so in style:

Factoids

  • Kane became the youngest U.S.-born player to reach 1,000 points. Consider this post to be its own factoids section on Kane’s milestone.
  • The Penguins joined the Panthers in generated three comeback wins from down three goals or more, according to NHL PR. (Pittsburgh also pulled that off in 2008-09.) The league notes that only three teams have generated more comeback wins from such deficits, all at four: the Red Wings in 1989-90, and both the 1983-84 Oilers and 1983-84 North Stars.
  • Uh oh. Connor Hellebuyck sports a troubling .897 save percentage over his last 16 games after managing a .933 mark during his first 16, according to TSN’s Statscentre. Hellebuyck grabs my current hypothetical Vezina vote in part because he’s carried such a burden for the Jets. Maybe he’s starting to wear down?

Scores

PIT 4 – BOS 3
CAR 2 – NYI 1 (SO)
CBJ 2 – NYR 1
CHI 5 – WPG 2

James O’Brien is a writer for Pro Hockey Talk on NBC Sports. Drop him a line at phtblog@nbcsports.com or follow him on Twitter @cyclelikesedins.

Penguins rally from 3-goal deficit to stun Bruins: 3 takeaways

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PITTSBURGH — The Pittsburgh Penguins erased a three-goal first period deficit against the Boston Bruins on Sunday afternoon to pick up a 4-3 win. The Penguins have shown an ability to rally all season, but their first period performance on Sunday, combined with the dominance of the Bruins, made it seem like this one might be a little too much to overcome.

It was not.

Here is how they did it.

1. Matt Murray and Jack Johnson bounced back

Murray and Johnson were at the center of the Penguins’ early struggles on Sunday as Boston jumped out to a 2-0 lead just two minutes into the game.

The first goal came just 11 seconds into the game when Johnson got caught out of position and left Patrice Bergeron wide open for a shot that he buried behind Murray. Two minutes later, Anders Bjork took advantage of another defensive breakdown to score his eighth goal of the season.

Just after that Murray received a mock cheer from the sellout crowd when he stopped a rolling puck from the neutral zone.  Things only got worse when David Pastrnak scored his 37th goal of the season thanks to some help from Johnson who accidentally knocked Pastrnak’s centering attempt into his own net.

“I had a feeling [Pastrnak] was going to throw it across the goal line to the guy on the backside,” said Johnson. “You have to try and stop it and lay it in the pads. You can’t let it go through or deflect it into the slot. It’s a tough bounce.”

It would have been easy for Penguins coach Mike Sullivan to make a goaltending change at that point but he decided to stick with Murray. He was rewarded for it. Murray was not only perfect for the remainder of the game, he actually finished with a very strong .918 save percentage and made some huge saves in the second and third period to keep the Penguins in it.

He has been relegated to backup duty for most of the past two months behind All-Star Tristan Jarry. But the Penguins know they will need both goalies this season and have tried to get Murray more playing time recently to get him back on track. He has now won each of his past four starts with strong numbers.

While Murray was bouncing back in net, Johnson made up for his first period own goal by scoring the game-tying goal early in the third period with a booming shorthanded slap shot.

2. Sidney Crosby and Evgeni Malkin dominated

The Penguins’ superstar center duo did not finish with huge numbers (Crosby had two assists; Malkin had one assist) but there was no denying the impact they had on this game.

Crosby helped start the Penguins’ rally late in the first period when he set up Dominik Simon for the Penguins’ first goal.

Just 33 seconds into the second period he added another ridiculous pass to his highlight reel when he did this.

Crosby now has eight points in four games since returning to the lineup.

Malkin, meanwhile, was a constant threat all day and finally made an impact on the scoreboard when he set up Bryan Rust on this play late in the third period.

Penguins coach Mike Sullivan praised Malkin’s effort and the message it sends to the rest of the team.

“Malkin made a great play on the game-winner.” said Sullivan. “He gets in on the forecheck, it’s just a hard-working goal. When you have one of your best players and a leader like that step up, it speaks volumes for the leadership of the group.”

The bad news for the Penguins’ forwards on Sunday is that Simon and Dominik Kahun both exited the game with injuries.

3. The Bruins lost another three-goal lead

This is something that just does not happen to the Bruins.

Consider this stat from NHL.com’s Wes Crosby when the Bruins jumped out to their three-goal lead.

 

The concerning thing here is three of those now eight losses (one regulation and two overtime) have come since Nov. 1 of this season.

They lost in a shootout to the Florida Panthers on Nov. 12 after holding a 4-0 lead. This past week they had a 5-2 second period lead over the Philadelphia Flyers before allowing that to slip away, again losing in a shootout. Then on Sunday they turned a 3-0 first period lead into a 4-3 regulation defeat.

The Bruins are still in a good position in the Atlantic Division with a six-point lead over the Tampa Bay Lightning, but there are some issues here. For one, Tampa Bay is gaining ground fast. There is also the fact that Boston has cooled off considerably over the past couple of months and is just 8-7-7 in its past 22 games.

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

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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.

The Buzzer: Cirelli, Lightning cruise past Jets; Crosby tallies OT winner

Anthony Cirelli #71 of the Tampa Bay Lightning
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Three Stars

1) Anthony Cirelli, Tampa Bay Lightning

Cirelli recorded his first NHL hat trick as the Lightning steamrolled the Winnipeg Jets Friday evening. The 22-year-old scored twice in the opening period as the Bolts jumped out to a 3-0 lead and never looked back. Cirelli hammered a feed from Ondrej Palat 9:27 into the game and then converted a nifty forehand-backhand maneuver to close out the first 20 minutes. Cirelli would complete the hat trick midway through the third period.

2) Evgeni Malkin, Pittsburgh Penguins

Malkin recorded two power-play assists to set up Pittsburgh’s two goals in its 2-1 win against the Detroit Red Wings. Sidney Crosby has received a lot of attention since returning from a 28-game absence earlier this week and added the game-winning goal Friday. However, it was Malkin who looked off the defender and delivered a perfect pass to set up the Penguins captain. Malkin has recorded 10 points in the previous six games.

3) Nikita Kucherov, Tampa Bay Lightning

The 26-year-old winger scored twice in Tampa Bay’s 7-1 win. Cirelli and Kucherov alternated goals as Tampa Bay jumped out to a 4-0 lead, including three in the opening period. Kucherov buried two tap-in opportunities to record goals 21 and 22 on the season. The Russian winger has five goals in his previous three games and the Lightning improved to 12-2-0 in the previous 14 games.

Highlights of the Night

Crosby extended his goal-scoring streak to three games when he buried a pretty feed from Malkin to propel the Penguins in overtime.

Sam Steel fired the OT winner after Andrei Svechnikov‘s costly turnover.

Stats of the Night

Scores

Pittsburgh Penguins 2, Detroit Red Wings 1 (OT)

Anaheim Ducks 2, Carolina Hurricanes 1 (OT)

Tampa Bay Lightning 7, Winnipeg Jets 1

NHL ALL-STAR GAME COVERAGE:
• All-Star Game rosters
• Rosters for Elite Women’s 3-on-3 Revealed
• Pass or Fail: 2020 All-Star Game jerseys
• Alex Ovechkin will not play in 2020 All-Star Game
• NHL Skills Competition to feature women’s 3-on-3, pucks shot from stands

Scott Charles is a writer for Pro Hockey Talk on NBC Sports. Drop him a line at phtblog@nbcsports.com or follow him on Twitter @ScottMCharles.