TAMPA, Fla. — Remember when Bryan Rust couldn't buy an empty-netter to snap his early season drought? Yeah, I didn't either until I came across a photo I took one December night in Pittsburgh.
You might ask what I was doing looking at photos of Rust from December.
Well, I spent a good chunk of time here in Tampa, just after the Penguins boarded the bus to the team hotel after practice, searching through every photo I've edited from this 2018-19 Penguins season. The goal was to find any number of photos of Rust going to the net with reckless abandon.
It's something I've thought a lot about recently, posted about during games on our Live Files, shared images of and have discussed internally with our Penguins coverage team. It seems that after Rust broke out of his goal scoring slump, he's been as aggressive as I've ever seen him in going to the net.
Well, Thursday night in Sunrise, Fla., when Rust soared through the air like Bobby Orr after colliding with Roberto Luongo and I captured the above photo, I decided it was time to talk to Rust's teammates, put my thoughts down and look for the evidence of the guy getting physical in the crease after using his jets to get there.
It wasn't the first photo like that one I've taken this season. It probably won't be the last. But, it sure did make me feel like finding out how many there were.
That's when I stumbled through a few thousand photos, pausing at every hint of the number 17 — and occasionally at 19 because the sleeves were just so dang similar — and found this photo of Rust.
The Penguins won their Dec. 4, 2018 game against the Avalanche by a rather sound 6-3 score. But, still, Rust had this expression: Collapsed on his knees in disappointment, bearing a mask of sadness behind his shield.
Rust had just used his speed, got forward to a puck and was hauled down before he could convert on an empty net. He argued that he should have been awarded a goal, but it didn't matter. There was no goal, and his buzzing presence in the few games prior continued unrewarded.
I looked back beyond that moment, thinking I'd find a few more images of Rust driving the net. Surely, he was doing the same thing then, right?
Out of the 24 or so images I copied into a new folder for this feature's purpose, only one photo is from before that kneeling image was taken, and it wasn't of Rust going hard to the net.
So, at least in photos and through my personal view, my hunch was right. Bryan Rust has suddenly become a monster with a purpose to attack the net and generate chances, regardless of how his body suffers.
Right now, that mentality is needed.
“It’s a part of my game that when I’m going, when I’m usually playing well, usually my feet are moving, usually I get a few more opportunities like that, take the puck to the net," Rust told me after practice Friday. "Doing things like that — might get a chance, might draw a penalty, might go in. So I try to do it as much as I can.”
Well, that sounds like an idea. Generate chances on net, put the puck on and around the net. Profit.
It’s easy to see why Rust should take matters into his own hands when the Penguins aren’t scoring enough, especially 5-on-5 — of his 153 Corsi-for chances, 55 are high danger.
That 36-percent makes him third on the team in high-danger chances percentage, behind Sidney Crosby and Jake Guentzel — two guys who almost always play together while Rust is often used as a Swiss Army knife throughout the lineup.
“I think I’m just trying to be a little more assertive out there. When I see an opportunity to try and take the puck to the net I try and take that opportunity," Rust said when I asked him about attacking the net and his high-danger chances. "I think when things aren’t going for you offensively, that’s just a way to simplify it. Just try and take the puck to the net yourself. That will help myself and the guys I’m on the ice with to create a few more chances.”
It sounds so simple, in sharp contrast to the Penguins currently avoiding opportunities to shoot, trying to "pass the puck into the net" as Mike Sullivan described after Friday's practice.
Rust's play is not going unnoticed.
"He's playing well, he's playing with confidence," Guentzel told me of the winger who finished opposite of him on the top line against the Panthers. "He's getting chances and getting rewarded for it. You're happy to see a guy like that getting chances and I think we're very fortunate to get to play with him, and he's got the speed for us."
I asked Guentzel a bit more about what the assertiveness, confidence, do-it-all type of creativity Rust offers can do for an entire team struggling to be assertive, particularly on a line where even Crosby is too frequently passing up chances to shoot.
"You just know he's a guy who's going to bring it every night. The speed and whatnot. It gets noticed and I think we try to use it to our advantage."
Rust fully acknowledges that his intention is to go hard to the net. If he can score, great. If he can get a squeaky puck to a teammate to finish, great. If the other team has something to think about because the only defense was to separate Rust from the puck by putting him through the goaltender ...
... also great.
“I like to think guys are going to try and run me," said Rust. "Usually if they run me they’re hitting me into their goalie. It’s a situation where I try to get a little bit of body position in front of the net and beat the defender and the goalie to the far post or try to shoot it through them or whatnot."
Obviously, not every crash to the net will earn Rust a goal, but it can lead to one for the team.
"If that doesn’t work, maybe the puck will squirt out there and somebody can come and bang it in.”
The problem for opposing teams is that in keeping up with Rust's wheels to limit his scoring angle, they probably aren't going to keep him from the cage without risking a penalty or their goaltender.
That's exactly what you see in the GIF above. That's Rust going to the net, against the Lightning of all teams, giving up his body trying to score and having Phil Kessel bang in a loose puck. Party Hard, as they sing in the stands.
I sought out Marcus Pettersson to ask about defending that, because of his length, his reach and the fact that he's gone against him as a teammate.
"He's one of those guys that no matter how hard he battles, he's always got control of the puck and knows where the puck is," he said about Rust's ability to surprise defensemen with his power.
"It's really hard. Even though you try to get low too and battle him, he's always got his stick loose and he can make plays down low."
Pettersson went on to say that people know him as a speedy guy, but his strength on and around the puck is what's creating chances for the Penguins when he's on the ice. They believe that when he's on the ice, a goal is attainable even when the breakout or buildup isn't sound.
Pettersson, of course, had his big first Penguins' goal on Thursday when he put a shot through traffic with Rust, Guentzel and Crosby all battling in front of the net. The shot just above is of that trio turning to race to the Swedish defenseman to celebrate his blast.
But those chances aren't coming frequently enough, and Pettersson knows the importance of what Rust can contribute in those games where you need a gritty goal:
"Some games we're not going to have 20 scoring chances and it's going to be a tight game. That's when you've got to find ways to win games. Certainly, he stands out in those games, I think, where it's tight, not many scoring chances and he creates a lot of opportunities."
Garrett Wilson, another player who makes a living around the net, had nothing but praise for Rust, boasting about his ability to play large in the high danger areas around the net, protect the puck, and "get in the goalie's head."
"He's fearless driving to the net," Wilson said of the smaller Rust's deceptive strength. "I think it catches a lot of defenders by surprise because they don't think he's going to go there and then he gets a step on them and goes there. It's a hard-nosed hockey play and usually it makes him successful."
I wondered if Rust had to develop these strengths, particularly protecting the puck from a potential poke check, by facing his former teammate Marc-Andre Fleury, who possesses arguably the best poke check of this generation.
When I asked him, I was a bit surprised to hear he'd actually prefer to face a more aggressive goalie.
“There aren’t too many goalies who use a poke check like [Fleury] anymore, but I would actually prefer if they did. It usually opens up the five hole or kind of lowers his short-side shoulder so it might open up a few more holes.”
You don't often hear guys say they'd prefer to put their skills to work against someone who will get Hall of Fame votes, but Rust isn't just any other player. Keith Kinkaid, shown above, won't share a ballot with Fleury, but he did recently get beat five hole after Rust lost his man on a break.
In pre-season, I added this bullet to one of our games that sparked some controversy among readers:
• Bryan Rust, a guy we applaud for being a Swiss Army knife and being able to produce no matter where he lines up, was largely invisible outside of his two penalties and a single rush. When you look at the body of work over the last two days, it’s hard to find reasons why he’s better than a Blueger, Grant or even Hayes (who is already on his way down). At the end of the day, he’s earned his spot and today is likely just a down day.
Well, Rust wasn't just down that day. He was down until he wasn't. But, since climbing up from his knees in December, he's created the chances his team has needed.
He's a far cry right now from that agitated, sad-looking winger who couldn't argue his way into an empty net goal.
MATT SUNDAY GALLERY
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