Bryan Rust

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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.

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.

Bruins coach Cassidy has some harsh words for his defense

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PITTSBURGH — For the third time this season and the second time this week the Boston Bruins lost a game after holding a three-goal lead. On Sunday, it was a 4-3 loss to the Pittsburgh Penguins.

After scoring three first period goals, the Bruins allowed the Penguins to climb back into the game and eventually tie it on a Jack Johnson shorthanded goal early in the third period. That set the stage for Bryan Rust to score the game-winner with just over seven minutes remaining.

That goal is the one that really seemed to draw the ire of Bruins coach Bruce Cassidy after the game. Especially since it is the type of thing he has been seeing too much of lately. He used that goal as an opportunity to criticize the play of his defensemen and the type of hockey they are playing.

It all started with Penguins center Evgeni Malkin forcing a turnover on the forecheck thanks to a heavy check on Bruins defenseman Charlie McAvoy. McAvoy gave up the puck to Malkin, Malkin found Rust wide open inside the faceoff dot, and Rust deposited in the net before Bruins goalie Jaroslav Halak could figure out what happened.

This game had to be especially frustrating for the Bruins after losing a three-goal lead in Philadelphia earlier this week.

“We saw some poor defending, poor goaltending I think in Philly. Tonight I thought it was more the same to be honest with you,” said Cassidy on Sunday. “Not so much on the goalie, they were good goals. But we get beat off the wall on the first one. The last one I can’t tell you what happened to be honest with you. It’s a rimmed puck goalie needs to get out and stop. The D need to communicate.

“You need to make a play. You can’t turn the puck over there. There’s too much of that going on. Guys that have offensive ability have to start playing to their strength a little more on our back end, or we have to seriously consider what type of D corps do we want? We are supposed to be mobile, we are supposed to be able to move the puck, break pucks out and add to our offense. Right now that is a challenge for us.”

Cassidy never mentioned anyone by name there, but it’s not hard to figure out who he is talking about.

McAvoy is the one that was guilty of the turnover on the game-winning goal, and it is probably fair to say that he is one of the players Cassidy wants to see playing to their strength more offensively. McAvoy spoke to the media after the game and admitted he needed to be stronger on that puck.

Aside from the turnover, McAvoy has been having an underwhelming season based on the standard he set for himself over his first two seasons. His possession numbers are down, and as of Sunday he has yet to score a goal in 46 games. He scored seven goals in 54 games a year ago, after scoring seven in 63 games during his rookie season.

It should also be noted that veteran John Moore was the one that got beat on the first goal that Cassidy mentioned. Moore, normally a 17-18 minute per game defenseman, was pretty much benched after that play. He finished the game with just 10 minutes of ice-time, only six of which came in the second and third periods after that goal was scored.

Cassidy was asked if he thought the team let up a little bit after getting the early lead. He did not see it that way, instead focussing on the type of goals they allowed.

“We got out-chanced in the second, but I don’t think it was to the point where they were bombarding us,” said Cassidy. “They were better, but we lose a battle low on the second goal, and our forward swings away. These are correctible mistakes, but the goals we are giving up against this good team like tonight. What is it? Is it lack of focus? Did we lose our urgency? Because they are gifts a little bit. Little bit of gifts. You can get out played, you will by good teams in stretches, but they were gifts.”

This Bruins team — and especially their defense — had their toughness questioned by the Boston media in the wake of their response to the hit that sidelined starting goalie Tuukka Rask.

Now they are facing public criticism from the person whose opinion matters most — their own coach — for a far bigger problem.

Their actual play on the ice.

Related: Penguins score four consecutive goals to beat Bruins

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.

 

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.

Penguins dominate Senators but another top player is injured

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(UPDATE: Guentzel underwent shoulder surgery and will miss the next 4-6 months.)

PITTSBURGH — Another game, another potentially significant injury for the Pittsburgh Penguins.

On the same day he was named to the 2020 NHL All-Star team, winger Jake Guentzel had to leave their 5-2 win over the Ottawa Senators on Monday night after a scary crash into the boards. It all happened as he finished a beautiful passing play to score his 20th goal of the season.

Just after depositing the puck into an abandoned net, he collided with Senators defenseman Thomas Chabot and went flying face/shoulder first into the boards. He remained on the ice for a few moments before gingerly skating to the locker room. He did not return to the game.

Here is a look at the play.

Guentzel also recorded his 200th career point on that play.

Penguins coach Mike Sullivan had no immediate update after the game.

“It was really scary,” said Sullivan when asked about watching the play. “Those are always dangerous when you fall that distance from the boards. There’s no status on him right now. Our doctors are evaluating him. We will probably have more information tomorrow.”

He also added that the contact that resulted in the injury was incidental.

After scoring 40 goals a year ago on the team’s top line next to Sidney Crosby, he has done everything he can to show that performance is no fluke. After Monday’s three-point performance he is currently on a 42-goal, 90-point pace over 82 games this season. He also leads the team in goals and total points and has been a mainstay on the top line no matter who the top center is.

With Crosby sidelined he has been playing next to Evgeni Malkin and Bryan Rust. It is a trio that has been running wild over the NHL since they have been put together. They teamed up for three goals on Monday (Malkin scoring two of them, including one just 27 seconds into the game) and completely dominated the Senators. In more than 224 minutes of 5-on-5 hockey that trio has outscored teams by an 18-9 margin and controlled more than 56 percent of the total shot attempts, scoring chances, expected goals, and high-danger chances (via Natural Stat Trick).

Senators coach D.J. Smith described the game simply and accurately: “Malkin just kind of ate us up tonight.”

The current injured list

Before Monday, Guentzel had been the one top player in the Penguins’ lineup to avoid injury this season.

They are already without Crosby, Nick Bjugstad, Brian Dumoulin, and Justin Schultz. This is also not a new development for them, either. Along with those four, Malkin, Kris Letang, Bryan Rust, Patric Hornqvist, Jared McCann, and Alex Galchenyuk have all combined to miss 146 man games (and counting) due to injury this season.

Many of them have been out at the same time.

It makes their current place in the standings — second place in the Metropolitan Division, and the fifth-best points percentage in the NHL — all the more impressive. They have also been one of the league’s best defensive teams this season.

Game ended with some madness

The Senators did not go away quietly in this one. There was a mini-line brawl that broke out with less than 20 seconds to play following an encounter between Malkin and Brady Tkachuk.

The key thing to watch there is as Malkin leaves the ice, Jean-Gabriel Pageau shoves him. Malkin responded by hitting Pageau up high with his stick. He received a two-minute for high-sticking during that sequence.

Keep in mind he was suspended for a game a year ago for swinging his stick at Philadelphia Flyers forward Michael Raffl. It will be interesting to see if the league does anything with this.

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: Markstrom stops 49 for Canucks; Foegele dominates

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Three Stars

1. Jacob Markstrom, Vancouver Canucks. He is doing everything he can to earn himself a big payday this summer. Markstrom helped the Canucks extend their current winning streak to four games while also jumping back into a playoff spot in the Western Conference. He stopped 49 out of 51 shots in a 3-2 win over the Los Angeles Kings, stealing two huge points for his team. He has really established himself as a quality NHL goalie over the past couple of years, and this might have been one of his best games yet.

2. Timo Meier, San Jose Sharks. He needed a huge game, and he delivered one. He recorded his first career hat trick to help lift the Sharks to a much-needed 6-1 win over the Philadelphia Flyers. You can read all about Meier’s game, as well as the Sharks’ big win, right here.

3. Warren Foegele, Carolina Hurricanes. Foegele was, quite simply, a beast for the Hurricanes on Saturday night. He finished with four points (two goals, including a shorthanded goal, and two assists), was a plus-four, and attempted seven shots during the Hurricanes’ 6-4 win over the Washington Capitals. It is the first four-point game of his NHL career and only the second time he has recorded more than two points in a game. The win helped the Hurricanes keep pace in the wildly competitive Metropolitan Division and snapped what had been a three-game losing streak.

Other notable performances from Saturday

  • Ryan Strome had four points (including two goals) and Tony DeAngelo scored an overtime winner for the New York Rangers as they put an end to the Toronto Maple Leafs’ winning streak.
  • The Tampa Bay Lightning overcame a brutal start that saw them give up the first 18 shots of the game (and two goals) to earn a 5-4 win over the Montreal Canadiens. Alex Killorn scored two goals and Victor Hedman had four assists in the win.
  • Bryan Rust scored two more goals for the Pittsburgh Penguins as they held on for a 6-4 win against the Nashville Predators. Jake Guentzel‘s power play goal with one minute to play in regulation was the game-winning goal.
  • Mark Stone scored two goals in a dominant Vegas Golden Knights win to help them jump ahead of the Arizona Coyotes for first place in the Pacific Division.
  • Mike Hoffman had three points for the Florida Panthers as they overcame a 3-1 deficit to beat the Detroit Red Wings, 5-4, handing the Red Wings their fifth consecutive defeat.
  • Ben Bishop made 42 saves for the Dallas Stars and Alexander Radulov scored the shootout winner in a 3-2 win over the Colorado Avalanche.

Highlights of the Night

Mika Zibanejad is on a roll for the Rangers right now and this second period goal off the rush was a real beauty.

Mario Ferraro and Joel Kellman both scored their first career goals for the Sharks on Saturday.

The one highlight of the night for the Coyotes was this tic-tac-toe passing play to set up Michael Grabner for a goal.

Factoids

  • Steven Stamkos recorded his 800th career point for the Lightning on Saturday night.
  • Alex Ovechkin scored the 256th power play goal of his career for the Washington Capitals. That moves him ahead of Teemu Selanne for third on the all-time list. [Capitals PR]
  • Marc-Andre Fleury recorded the 454th win of his career to tie Curtis Joseph for the sixth-most wins in NHL history. [NHL PR]
  • Joe Thornton recorded career assist 1,079 for the Sharks, moving him into a tie with Adam Oates for seventh most in NHL history. [NHL PR]
  • Markstrom’s 49 saves were the most by a Canucks goalie since Roberto Luongo stopped 54 shots in Game 5 of the 2011 Western Conference Finals. Luongo was eventually traded for Markstrom. [NHL PR]

Scores

Dallas Stars 3, Colorado Avalanche 2 (SO)
New York Rangers 5, Toronto Maple Leafs 4 (OT)
Tampa Bay Lightning 5, Montreal Canadiens 4
Florida Panthers 5, Detroit Red Wings 4
Pittsburgh Penguins 6, Nashville Predators 4
Carolina Hurricanes 6, Washington Capitals 4
Vancouver Canucks 3, Los Angeles Kings 2
Vegas Golden Knights 4, Arizona Coyotes 1
San Jose Sharks 6, Philadelphia Flyers 1

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.