Jake Guentzel

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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.

NHL All-Star Game: Vasilevskiy replaces Rask; Letang named Metro captain

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Tampa Bay Lightning goalie Andrei Vasilevskiy is having himself a pretty good Monday.

Along with being named the NHL’s first star of the week, he is also being added to the Atlantic Division All-Star team where he will replace Boston Bruins goalie Tuukka Rask.

This will be the third consecutive season that Vasilevskiy will appear in the NHL All-Star Game.

In 33 appearances this season he has a 22-9-2 record to go with a .915 save percentage.

While his overall numbers are down a bit for the season, he has started to get on a roll in recent weeks and has been nearly unbeatable since the start of December. He has been one of the players driving Tampa Bay’s climb back up the standings — including their recent 10-game winning streak — as they once again start to look like a Stanley Cup contender and one of the league’s elite teams.

By removing himself from the game, Rask will have to sit out one Bruins game immediately before or after the All-Star break.

Kris Letang named captain of Metropolitan Division team

The other piece of All-Star Game news on Monday is that Pittsburgh Penguins defenseman Kris Letang has been named captain of the Metropolitan Division team.

Alex Ovechkin had previously been captain of team, but decided to withdraw from the weekend festivities to rest and prepare himself for the second half of the regular season.

Letang was added to the game as a replacement for Pittsburgh teammate Jake Guentzel who is currently sidelined with a shoulder injury. This is Letang’s sixth All-Star game appearance. In 37 games so far this season he has 10 goals and 28 total points.

The NHL All-Star weekend will take place on January 24-25 in St. Louis.

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 All-Star Game: Jarry, Letang to replace Guentzel, Korpisalo

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The NHL announced a couple of changes to the Metropolitan Division All-Star roster on Tuesday night.

Pittsburgh Penguins teammates Tristan Jarry (goalie) and Kris Letang (defense) have been added to the roster as replacements. They will be replacing Penguins winger Jake Guentzel and Columbus Blue Jackets goalie Joonas Korpisalo.

Guentzel and Korpisalo were named to the initial rosters but will have to miss the All-Star weekend due to injury. Korpisalo is sidelined for four-to-six weeks due to a torn meniscus, while Guentzel will miss the next four-to-six months after undergoing shoulder surgery.

Letang was the Penguins representative for the last men in vote, so it is not much of a surprise that he was next in line to replace Guentzel. He is the Penguins ice-time leader this season and already has 10 goals and 26 total points in 34 games. This will be the sixth All-Star Game appearance of his career.

Jarry is probably more of a surprise given his path to the All-Star game.

He opened the season as the Penguins’ backup goalie behind Matt Murray and was on the roster at the start mainly because he counted less against the salary cap than Casey DeSmith. But as Murray has slumped, Jarry has taken over the starting job in Pittsburgh and has been one of the league’s best goalies this season. He enters Tuesday’s game as the league leader in all situations save percentage, even-strength save percentage, and goals against average.

The NHL All-Star weekend is Jan. 24-25 and will take place in St. Louis.

Related: NHL reveals 2020 All-Star Game rosters

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’ Guentzel to miss 4-6 months after shoulder surgery

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A brutal year for injuries just got worse for the Penguins.

One day after he crashed into the end boards following a goal, the Penguins announced that Jake Guentzel underwent shoulder surgery and will miss the next 4-6 months.

Guentzel had a goal and three points in the 5-2 win over Ottawa on Monday. The goal, which was his 20th of the season, was also the 200th point of his NHL career. He currently leads the team in goals and points (43).

“It was really scary,” Penguins head coach Mike Sullivan said afterward. “Those are always dangerous when you fall that distance from the boards.”

Already without Sidney Crosby, Justin Schultz, Nick Bjugstad, and Brian Dumoulin, this is just another missing body on a Penguins team that’s still played well (24-11-4–52) despite missing over 150 man games to injury.

“I hope the injured guys are back soon and I hope he’s not out so long,” said Evgeni Malkin. “It didn’t look good. But everyone understands it’s hockey. It’s tough. Sometimes we have a couple injuries. But I need to play better next game if Jake does not play.”

Guentzel’s injury also means he’ll miss out on his first NHL All-Star Game after being named to the Metropolitan Division team. Teammate Kris Letang, who is part of the Last Men In vote, could be a potential replacement to represent the Penguins or the league could keep it a forward for forward swap and invite Malkin or Bryan Rust to St. Louis next month.

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Sean Leahy is a writer for Pro Hockey Talk on NBC Sports. Drop him a line at phtblog@nbcsports.com or follow him on Twitter @Sean_Leahy.

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.