Bryan Rust nears return, but where does he fit in Penguins’ lineup?
Only 11 regular-season games separate the Pittsburgh Penguins from the urgent, pressurized grind of the postseason, but for now these are hopeful — if busy — times for one of the NHL’s hottest teams.
Especially for Bryan Rust (lower body), who joined Kris Letang (upper body) as injured Penguins who skated Friday at practice. Most significantly, they did so without the crutch of the red no-contact jersey.
Both players have been able to take a slow, cautious approach to their rehab for the most obvious of reasons:
The team is winning without them.
With weekend games set for Saturday against the St. Louis Blues and Sunday against the Philadelphia Flyers at PPG Paints Arena, the Penguins are making a run for the top spot in the Metropolitan Division.
With the stakes increased as the end of the regular season nears, the Penguins won three games in a row, six of the past seven. They are closer to first place (four points behind the Washington Capitals) than they are to the teams tied for the last playoff spot (six points ahead of the Columbus Blue Jackets and Montreal Canadiens).
“When you’re out and the guys are losing, it makes things a little bit tougher and you try to rush things maybe,” Rust said. “When the team is winning, you can take your time and make sure you’re ready.”
That’s why neither Rust, Letang nor coach Mike Sullivan made any definitive statements about the players’ availability this weekend. Plus, keeping the opponents guessing is never a bad idea.
“We’ll see,” Rust said.
“I feel pretty good,” Letang said, without offering a clue.
“We’ll see how they respond,” Sullivan said, adding he has not ruled out playing one or both players this weekend.
Getting Rust and/or Letang back should create some interesting meetings among Sullivan and his coaches.
Does Rust return to the top line with Sidney Crosby and Jake Guentzel and replace Jared McCann, who has nine goals, four assists and a plus-9 rating since being acquired from the Florida Panthers 21 days ago?
Or, does Rust slip back to the second line alongside Evgeni Malkin and Phil Kessel? Sounds like the classic good problem to have, except Sullivan said it’s not a problem.
“It’s a challenge,” he said, “but it’s a good one to have. It means we have a real capable group of players here.
“The guys who have been in the lineup have done a terrific job, but obviously these guys who are coming back are important players for our team.”
Asked how McCann has been able to mesh so easily and quickly with Crosby and Guentzel, Sullivan praised his “offensive instincts.”
“He has shown the ability to score and shoot the puck,” Sullivan said. “One of the reasons we originally put him on that line is he brings a speed dimension. He can really skate, get in on the forecheck, force turnovers.
“He’s helped Sid and Jake in that regard. They’ve shown some chemistry, and we’ll see where it goes.”
Rust said he has “no clue,” where he’ll line up when he does return. For now, he said, “Knowing that you’re close is nice.”
He said the injury is healing faster than expected.
“I feel strong. I feel good. I don’t think I’m favoring anything. That’s definitely a good sign,” he said.
“When I first got injured, it didn’t feel very great then, but it’s definitely something I’m taking day by day now and, hopefully, it’s sooner rather than later. I think everybody thought it was worse. I was fortunate in that sense. We’ll see.”
Rust’s injury interrupted a string of games that contrasted sharply with the start of the season for him.
In his first 29 games, he had only one goal and six assists with a minus-4. In the next 33, he had 16 goals, eight assists and a plus-14.
Sounds like a difficult decision for Sullivan, but Crosby expects the team can make it work one way or the other.
“Everyone has played with different combinations throughout the year, anyway,” he said. “No matter who you play with, you’re doing your job, you understand your role. After that, you have to make sure you’re working as a unit out there.”
Jerry DiPaola is a Tribune-Review staff writer. You can contact Jerry by email at [email protected] or via Twitter .