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Penguins' Rust eager to resume contact, rejoin lineup

| Monday, March 20, 2017, 7:30 p.m.

Bryan Rust raced down the ice at Monday's optional practice at PPG Paints Arena with the puck on his stick and a set of push-ups on his mind.

He and the team's other skaters already had gone to the ice for one set after they failed to sneak enough pucks past Marc-Andre Fleury and Matt Murray. To lose in the short competition supervised by assistant Rick Tocchet only would invite groans from the skaters and more gloating from the goalies.

Sidelined with an upper-body injury since early February, Rust relishes even little victories. So when he beat Fleury on a breakaway to tilt the competition in the skaters' favor and put push-up duty on the goalies, Rust hugged a few teammates at the half-wall and went through a multi-step celebratory handshake with another.

“I tried to mess around a little bit,” he said. “Kind of celly and kind of try to get under the goalies' skin a little bit. Crack some jokes. Have some fun. I'm obviously really excited to be back out there with more than one just guy and a skills coach.”

When Rust, injured Feb. 9 in a game at Colorado, will become more than a part-time participant at practices remains unknown. He rejoined practice for the first time Saturday but is yet to receive clearance for contact and far from shy about how that frustrates him.

“I've been antsy for a few weeks now,” he said. “Just kind of watching all of these games, it's a little bit of a bummer, and I'm kind of itching to get back in there. ... There's a game (on the schedule) I'm shooting for. Hopefully I'll be able to play by then.”

When healthy this season, Rust was a revelation. The scoring touch that existed in the 2016 playoffs, when he tallied six goals and three assists in 23 games, continued into the 2016-17 campaign as Rust tallied 12 goals and 13 assists in 50 games.

That productivity landed Rust on the right wings of Evgeni Malkin and Sidney Crosby. Whether those slots will belong to Rust when he returns is another key question.

“We obviously have a little bit of a log jam with some of the right-handed shots, but we can move guys around, and that's what we've done,” coach Mike Sullivan said.

If there's a silver lining for Rust as far as his potential role, it's that he blends some of the best qualities of the Penguins' other right wingers. His skating speed compares well to Phil Kessel. Much like Jake Guentzel and Conor Sheary, he embraces a complementary role when flanking stars. And as Monday's practice showed, Rust welcomes the chance to rile others up, a tendency most frequently linked to Patric Hornqvist.

“I think that's an aspect of his game that gives him a competitive edge,” Sullivan said of Rust's feistiness. “That element certainly helps us as we get closer here to the playoffs.

“His speed obviously jumps out at everyone because it's obvious. But he's got other aspects of his game that certainly help this team win and warrant his roster spot on this team. ... Regardless of where we use him, we know that he's going to make us a better team when he's in our lineup.”

Bill West is a Tribune-Review staff writer. Reach him at wwest@tribweb.com or via Twitter @BWest_Trib.

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