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X-Factor

Penguins' Rust no longer an understudy

Pittsburgh forward elevating star quality, production of Malkin, Kunitz

by Wes Crosby / NHL.com Correspondent

PITTSBURGH -- Pittsburgh Penguins forward Bryan Rust's sudden surge in name recognition could continue into the Stanley Cup Final.

Through the first three rounds of the Stanley Cup Playoffs, Pittsburgh has relied as much on its supporting cast as it has on centers Sidney Crosby and Evgeni Malkin. The combination of star power and depth has fueled a run to the Cup Final against the San Jose Sharks, beginning with Game 1 at Consol Energy Center on Monday (8 p.m. ET; NBC, CBC, TVA Sports).

Rust has played a leading role on that supporting cast while helping one of Pittsburgh's top two centers find his game.

Malkin struggled offensively throughout the Eastern Conference Second Round against the Washington Capitals and early in the Eastern Conference Final against the Tampa Bay Lightning. Once Rust's speed was added to his right wing, replacing forward Eric Fehr, Malkin began to look like the dominant force he was expected to be.

"It just works," Malkin said. "It's a simple game for us … We need to play a fast game and it's simple. Like chip the puck behind and work the offensive zone … A simple game in the playoffs. Sometimes it doesn't look good, but it works."

After failing to score in the first two games of the conference final, Malkin had at least one point in each of the last five. He assisted on each of Rust's goals in Pittsburgh's 2-1 Game 7 win Thursday.

Video: York Hottest Plays: Rust carries Pens to Game 7 win

By now, the importance of Rust's goals is well-documented, but their significance should not be taken solely at face value. The chemistry shown between Rust and Malkin on each goal might signal more is to come from them against the Sharks.

"I'm just trying to roll with it," Rust said. "I'm getting more and more chemistry with my linemates as time goes on, and if you get some chemistry with Geno, good things are going to happen."

Rust hasn't just helped Malkin. Left wing Chris Kunitz has found an extra gear while scoring at least one point in each of his past five games.

Kunitz scored a goal in three straight games midway through the conference final to push his total to four, his most since scoring five in 2013.

"The speed that [Rust] brings to the line, obviously puck possession and understanding the ice that Geno has, it makes it easy on a player like myself to go in and work the walls and get to the front of the net," Kunitz said. "I can't say enough about him. To score the big goal last game to put us up and come out [Thursday] and score that first one, really got the building rocking."

Rust has scored twice in two of Pittsburgh's three elimination games this postseason, including in Game 5 of the second round against the New York Rangers. He has five playoff goals after scoring five in 55 regular-season games the past two seasons.

After entering the playoffs nursing a lower-body injury and scoring twice in his previous 29 games, Rust has become an unlikely hero for the Penguins on their journey back to the Stanley Cup Final for the first time since 2009.

Rust described his overnight success as surreal.

"So far, that's pretty much the only emotion I got," Rust said. "That and just, excitement. We're one step closer and that's all I got."

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