Bryan Rust provides bottom-6 spark for Penguins in winning streak
On Friday night, Tom Kuhnhackl converted a slick penalty shot to finally record his first goal of the season.
On Saturday night, Carl Hagelin danced around the top of the crease and patiently popped a puck under the crossbar to snap an agonizing 19-game goal drought.
The Penguins have won four games in a row for the first time this season. Their bottom-six forwards have scored in four straight games.
There's no way that's a coincidence.
The recent run of depth scoring, though, didn't start with Kuhnhackl and Hagelin. It began with a pair of breakaway goals by Bryan Rust in the previous two games against Tampa Bay and Philadelphia.
If the Penguins are going to have consistent success, they're going to need scoring from lines other than those centered by Sidney Crosby and Evgeni Malkin. And if the bottom six is going to produce offensively, Rust is probably going to be a key cog in the wheel.
“Not playing up to my standards as of recently,” Rust said. “I think that helped get a little bit of confidence back.”
In the Tampa Bay game, Rust's goal came short-handed. He poked a puck past pinching defenseman Mikhail Sergachev, took off on a breakaway, beat goalie Peter Budaj high to the blocker side and looked skyward in relief.
After getting off to a blazing start to the season with eight points in the first six games, Rust went through an 18-game stretch where he recorded just four points.
“That's just the nature of a season,” Rust said. “There are going to be ups and downs. It's how you handle that.”
A team looking for secondary scoring can't count on short-handed offensive production, of course, but it certainly helps. The Penguins have four short-handed goals this season, one off the league lead, and Rust is responsible for two of them.
“Opposing power plays think a little bit too offensively at times, and they don't defend as hard as maybe they should,” Rust said. “With my speed probably being my biggest asset, that comes into play on the penalty kill.”
In the Philadelphia game, Rust's goal came after he blocked a Shayne Gostisbehere shot, won a race with the Flyers defenseman to the opposing net and scored.
It was an even-strength goal, which is important. Before their current four-game winning streak started, the Penguins got a total of four even-strength goals from their bottom six, and Rust had none of them.
“A little bit of a concern,” Rust said. “There was a long stretch of games where I was getting a lot of chances and hit a lot of posts in a row, and I think they were all even strength. I think it's just one of those things you just fight through. Keep trying to get those chances, and they're going to fall.”
Rust's scoring touch has come and gone this season, but one thing he has done consistently is draw penalties.
He ranks in the top 10 in the league in penalties drawn with 13. Getting chances for the team's dangerous power play, which ranks fourth in the league with a 25.5 percent success rate, is another thing bottom-six forwards can do to help offensive production.
“I'm trying to use my feet to my advantage as much as I can,” Rust said. “Try to get by defenders and make them use their sticks and arms to try to hold me down.”
Players who lead the league in penalties drawn often are cut from a certain cloth. They're agitators with a physical edge to their game. Think Montreal's Brendan Gallagher, for example.
Rust swears it's his legs, not his mouth, however, that has put him on the good side of the whistle so many times this season. He's no shift-disturber.
“I don't think so,” Rust said with a laugh. “Some other guys might have different viewpoints, but I don't think so.”