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Ruhwedel quietly bringing consistency to blue line

by Jeff Carpenter @penguins / Pittsburgh Penguins

While the Penguins picked up just three points on their season-long five-game road swing through western Canada, one of the positives taken from the trip was the impact Chad Ruhwedel has had on keeping a battered blue line afloat.

Since Oct. 24, a span of seven games, Ruhwedel has averaged 19 minutes of ice time per game - fourth highest among Penguins defenseman. After starting the year as the team's seventh defenseman, Ruhwedel got an opportunity to enter the lineup due to injuries and has since been quietly consistent.

"It means a lot, their trust in me," Ruhwedel said. "The more you play, the better you'll get every week, and you can just get into the game a little easier. Having some more minutes is nice, and I just have to stay with it."

Thrusted into the lineup after Ian Cole's injury from a blocked shot, the San Diego, Calif. native has seen an increased workload with Matt Hunwick and Justin Schultz both sidelined with concussions. He's handled it well, and a lot of that coincides with his fit within the Penguins system.

"He's played really well for us," head coach Mike Sullivan reflected. "He's a guy that you know exactly what you're going to get, night in and night out from him. He's really increased his intensity level since he's been playing with us. He's played a real solid two-way game."

While Hunwick and Schultz are both on the verge of returning, as they are cleared for contact and practiced with regular jerseys on Monday, Ruhwedel's play has provided a case to leave him in the lineup.

While the Penguins have had a lethal power play this season, as their 28.8-percent conversion rate is tied for second in the league, they have struggled to score at even strength throughout the first five weeks of the season. Ruhwedel, playing primarily all his minutes 5-on-5, has been arguably the Penguins' strongest defenseman at even strength.

The UMass-Lowell product has provided a smooth game, highlighted by his skating ability and on-ice awareness.

"The thing we really like about Chad is his mobility," Sullivan said. "He can get back to pucks quickly, he helps us get out of our end zone. He's defending hard, he has a good stick, and he's coachable. He's done really a good job for us, he quietly goes about his business and plays an important role for this team."

One of his biggest assets is his quick decision-making with the puck. This was showcased brilliantly on Oct. 12 against Tampa Bay, when Ruhwedel corralled a rebound in the defensive zone, and rather than just clearing the puck, took a few strides before launching a full-ice pass to Conor Sheary. He snuck behind the Lightning defense and buried the goal on a quick counter-attack play.

"He's a solid player, he's very dependable," defenseman Brian Dumoulin said. "I know what he's going to do with the puck, and that's a good thing to have in a partner, the predictability. He's a good skater, has a good shot, and he can work well with anyone."

The 5'11", 192-pound blueliner's steady defensive game is what led to the Penguins pursuing him last off season after three years in the Buffalo Sabres organization, mostly spent with their American Hockey League affiliate, the Rochester Americans.

Ruhwedel initially started the 2016-17 season with Wilkes-Barre, but a strong start and banged-up blueline led to him playing in 34 NHL contests with Pittsburgh, scoring two goals, picking up eight assists, and finishing a plus-9.

It earned him a Stanley Cup ring and a two-year, one-way NHL contract this most recent offseason, and the next big step is becoming a constant presence in the lineup, even when everyone is healthy.

"I just need to play my game, keep doing what I'm doing," Ruhwedel said. "Do more with the opportunities that I'm getting, and just try to make the most of it."

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