For several seasons, the Pittsburgh Penguins’ offense has been completely reliant on the big three – Sidney Crosby, Evgeni Malkin and Phil Kessel. When those three aren’t producing, it usually results in a handful of losses in a row. So far this season, the big three are right where they’re supposed to be in terms of leading the team in scoring, but Kessel and Malkin have both been in a vicious slump as of late.
Crosby has carried his weight, with nine points in the last six games, but Kessel and Malkin have only contributed one even strength goal (and it was in three-on-three overtime) over the same span and are a combined minus-four. Their struggles have been noticeable, with both showing their frustrations on the ice and both were on the wrong end of some questionable comments by former Penguins forward Pascal Dupuis.
“Maybe the messages aren’t passing well between the two star players and the man behind the bench,” Dupuis said (from ‘Pascal Dupuis Clarifies Comments on Mike Sullivan, Penguins Stars,’ Pittsburgh Post-Gazette – 12/19/18).
So with those two struggling, how are the Penguins 5-1-0 in their last six games? Enter Bryan Rust. While Malkin and Kessel have struggled, Rust has been lights out.
Bryan Rust Is Becoming a Goal Scoring Machine
Since Dec. 12, Rust leads the NHL with eight goals and only one other player has more than four. One of the goals was a game-winner against the Washington Capitals in a game that may have turned the tide for the Penguins.
In the 29 games before his hat trick against the Chicago Blackhawks on Dec. 12, Rust had only one goal and made little impact in the offensive zone. If the Penguins want to continue their success, he is going to have to continue to find ways to put the puck in the back of the net. He has not only earned the praises of the Penguins’ faithful, but also his head coach.
Coach Sullivan on Rust's production: "We’re thrilled for him. Rusty does so many things beyond the numbers. Certainly when he helps us offensively, it's a boost for our team. His speed is evident. He's confident. We're thrilled that it's going in the net for him." pic.twitter.com/XBKbImZepi
— Pittsburgh Penguins (@penguins) December 21, 2018
Obviously asking Rust to score every game is an impossible ask, but the lack of scoring from the Penguins’ bottom-six had been a problem in the beginning of the season. He has continued to do all the little things for the team – block shots, kill penalties and grind down opposing top lines. There have been other guys who have also stepped up during Malkin and Kessel’s slumps, especially Zach Aston-Reese. However, Rust has been leading the way for the bottom two lines.
What Has Bryan Rust Done Differently?
So if Rust went the first 29 games with only one goal and now has eight goals in his past seven games, something different must be going on. While he has been on the right side of good bounces, most notably a blunder by Minnesota Wild goaltender Devan Dubnyk, where he passed the puck directly to Penguins forward Jake Guentzel, who then dished it in front to Rust for a wide-open tap-in goal, but good fortune favors those who put themselves in the right position.
One might think that the easy answer would be that Rust is getting more ice time, particularly on the power play, but that’s not the case. He has continued to play his role as a bottom-six forward and his time on ice has not significantly changed. He has been sprinkled onto the second power play unit from time to time, but all eight of his goals in the past six games have been at even strength.
Sometimes it only takes one or two good games for a player to start having more confidence with the puck, and after Rust’s hat trick against the Blackhawks, he has been oozing confidence every shift. Confidence leads to shooting the puck more, and that has been the main reason why Rust has found success of late.
During the remarkable seven-game stretch, Rust has 25 shots, including a career-high eight against the Blackhawks where he earned his second career hat trick. Those 25 shots average out to 3.57 shots-per-game. In his previous 29 games, where Rust only scored one goal, he averaged 1.45 shots-per-game.
Six games ago, the Penguins barely sniffed the playoff race. Now they find themselves in third place in the Metropolitan Division with a four-point lead on the New York Islanders. It’s far from a comfortable lead, but Rust’s sudden offensive explosion is the main reason for the Penguins’ resurgence into the playoff picture. Offensive depth is one of the most important aspects of a successful team, and this scoring slump from Malkin and Kessel is not going to last too long. If Rust continues to consistently contribute, the Penguins are going to be a real offensive force in the Eastern Conference.