Ron Cook: Penguins winger Bryan Rust is clutch in the playoffs
April 17, 2017 12:06 AM
Bryan Rust celebrates with Phil Kessel after Rust scored his second goal against the Blue Jackets on Sunday at Nationwide Arena in Columbus, Ohio.
By Ron Cook / Pittsburgh Post-Gazette
COLUMBUS, Ohio — They used to call Reggie Jackson “Mr. October” because of his prolific production in baseball’s biggest games. What should we call the Penguins’ Bryan Rust? Mr. Springtime? How about Mr. Clutch?
“He seems to play his best when the stakes are high,” Mike Sullivan was saying Sunday night.
This was after the Penguins’ 5-4 overtime win against the Columbus Blue Jackets in Game 3 of their first-round playoff series, a win that gives them a 3-0 lead and almost assures they will move on to Round 2. Rust scored their second goal to cut the Columbus lead to 3-2 and originally was credited with their third goal that made it 3-3. The NHL changed that one to Evgeni Malkin’s goal after the game, but that didn’t detract from Rust’s night. He’s making a habit of scoring big goals. You might remember last spring when he scored both goals in a 2-1 win against Tampa Bay in Game 7 of the Eastern Conference final. He also scored two goals in the Game 5 elimination game against the New York Rangers in the first round. He finished with six postseason goals, a Penguins’ rookie record.
Rust has averaged a goal every 5.6 games in the regular season and every 3.25 games in the playoffs. He scored the Penguins’ first goal of this postseason in the 3-1 win in Game 1.
“I’m not sure why that is,” Rust said, wanting no part of that “Mr. Clutch” title. “I guess it’s just that time of year that everybody just elevates. I’m being the beneficiary right now.
“I’m just trying to go out there and play hard every shift and try to play the right way. When you’re playing with two linemates as skilled as [Evgeni Malkin and Phil Kessel] who can make plays, as long as you work hard and can get to open space and look for passes, good things are going to happen.”
Early in the second period, Rust went hard to the net to deflect a Brian Dumoulin shot by goaltender Sergei Bobrovsky. “I think most important was the second goal,” Malkin said. “It’s 3-2 and we’ve got lots of time. We know we’re back. We just start play right.”
Rust was back in front of the net 8 minutes later when he appeared to convert a perfect pass from Malkin to tie the game, 3-3. Malkin had tried the exact same play a moment earlier in that shift, but Rust couldn’t handle the pass. “The first pass, I think I gave it to him a little hard,” Malkin said. “He didn’t see the puck. The second puck, I know he’s coming to the net. I tried to give it to him a little bit easy.”
As it turned out, the puck hit off a Columbus player before it got to Rust and went in the net, hence the goal for Malkin.
The Penguins caught a big break on that tying goal. When Columbus defenseman Zach Werenski blocked a shot by Kessel with his stick, the puck ricocheted violently into Werensky’s right check, bringing Werenski to his knees as blood gushed from his face. The referees allowed play to continue as Werenski slowly got up and skated toward his bench, leaving a trail of blood along the way. He didn’t make it there before Malkin scored.
“We were a little bit lucky,” Malkin said.
Columbus coach John Tortorella agreed. You might guess he would have preferred that the referees stopped play when they say Werenski on the ice in a pool of his blood. So did the Columbus portion of the crowd of 19,092 at Nationwide Arena. They gave the business to referees Francis Charron and Steve Kozari.
“I’ve seen it called both ways,” Tortorella said. “I don’t think we got puck possession. But I’ve still seen plays like that, the refs blow it right away. They decided not to. It’s their call.”
Rookie Jake Guentzel won the game at 13:10 of overtime when he banged a Sidney Crosby pass past Bobrovsky. That completed a hat trick for Guentzel, who also is doing a pretty nice “Mr. Clutch” impersonation.
Malkin is not surprised.
“We’re a lucky team. We have good chemistry. We have old guys … not old guys … yeah old guys who have won a couple cups and young guys like Rust and Guentzel. It’s an amazing chemistry. They give us speed. We give them chemistry and experience.”
Don’t underestimate that experience factor, Sullivan said. He was thrilled his Penguins climbed out of that 3-1 hole, which included a goal by the Blue Jackets’ Cam Atkinson just 11 seconds in.
“Some of the goals early didn’t go our way, but we responded the right way,” Sullivan said, calling the win “our most complete game in the last, probably, month or month-and-a-half.
“What I love about our group is we keep playing. Our leadership in the room helps those young guys. They make them feel welcome. They’re a calming influence on this group.”
The result is that 3-0 lead in the series with a chance to end it here Tuesday night.
So who do you have getting the winning goal in the clincher that night or in one of the three games that could follow?
On a team with Crosby and Malkin, you could do worse than picking Rust or Guentzel.
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