A few weeks ago, Pittsburgh Penguins forward Bryan Rust couldn't play. He couldn't practice. He couldn't even put both hands on his stick.
He sawed a stick in half so he could shoot with one arm.
At that point, it was hard to envision Rust would have four goals in five games, tied for second in the Stanley Cup Playoffs, entering Game 1 of the Eastern Conference Second Round between the Penguins and Washington Capitals at Verizon Center on Thursday (7:30 p.m. ET; NBCSN, SN, TVA Sports 2).
All he was trying to do was stay sane.
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Rust raced up ice in the Penguins' 4-1 win against the Colorado Avalanche at Pepsi Center on Feb. 9. Center Sidney Crosby sent a saucer pass onto his stick in the right circle. As he shot the puck, Avalanche defenseman Mark Barberio bumped him from behind.
At full speed he fell on his back, limbs splayed, and crashed into Colorado goaltender Calvin Pickard.
He rolled onto his stomach, flipped off a glove, hunched on all fours with his head down and shouted an expletive in pain. He had an arm injury.
For three weeks Rust could skate with injured teammates but wasn't permitted to use a stick, at least in the traditional sense. He would do his grueling conditioning, then take a sawed-off stick and shoot with his good arm, kind of like when he played ministicks as a kid in the Detroit suburbs.
"Looked a little, uh, different, definitely," said defenseman Olli Maatta, who was recovering from an injury and skating with Rust at the time. "But I've got to tell you: After a week he had a pretty good one-handed shot."
"A lot of skating, but it gives you a little boost of motivation when you can have the puck and shoot at the end," Maatta said. "It kind of brought the fun into it too."
Rust, a third-round pick (No. 80) by Pittsburgh in the 2010 NHL Draft, had come up from Wilkes-Barre Scranton of the American Hockey League and helped the Penguins win the Stanley Cup last season. He scored six goals in 23 playoff games, including both goals in a 2-1 win against the Tampa Bay Lightning in Game 7 of the Eastern Conference Final.
Now he was in his first full NHL season but watching the Penguins play on without him. When they defeated the Philadelphia Flyers 4-2 in the 2017 Coors Light NHL Stadium Series game at Heinz Field on Feb. 25, Rust spent part of the game in the press box, part of it in a suite.
Video: CBJ@PIT, Gm5: Rust chips home rebound with backhand
"It was such an unbelievable atmosphere," he said. "It's a thing that guys don't get many opportunities to do."
So for him …
"It [stunk]," he said. "The only thing that was good about it was that we won."
Rust kept skating, kept shooting with one arm, day after day.
"It's kind of the same thing over and over again," he said. "It's a little bit of a grind mentally trying to get yourself up for things like that. But [it helped] just kind of knowing there's light at the end of the tunnel and just knowing if I work hard and do the right things I'll be back and get some games before the playoffs and just hit the ground running."
After missing 20 games, Rust returned in the Penguins' 4-3 shootout loss against the New York Islanders on March 24. He had seven games down the stretch to get his timing back for the playoffs. He scored in three of his last five, then had four goals in five games against the Columbus Blue Jackets in the Eastern Conference First Round.
He's gaining a reputation as what Penguins coach Mike Sullivan called a high-stakes player. In 112 NHL regular-season games, Rust has 20 goals. But in 28 Stanley Cup Playoff games he has 10 goals, including eight in his past 13 games.
"He did it last year all playoffs long for us, and he's continuing to do that again," Sullivan said. "That's good for our team and that's good for him as an individual as well. I think he should find confidence in that. I think that should help him moving forward."
All he needs is two hands on his stick.
"For a lot of us guys who went through it for the first time last year, we know what to expect," Rust said. "We know what the games are going to be like, what a Game 7 is going to be like, all those types of things, and how it would be to bounce back from a tough loss or stay even-keeled.
"I think this year you've got a little bit of confidence. You kind of have the confidence in yourself that you know what to do and how to handle those situations to an extent. Obviously we're not grizzled veterans here; we haven't been through it too many times. But we've seen it before. We know how to be successful. We've just got to get back to that."