After the Pens’ 2-1 win over the Tampa Bay Lightning in Game 7 of Eastern Conference Final, Nick Bonino
leaned over to Bryan Rust
on the bench and asked him how it felt to be a Pittsburgh hero.
That’s because the 24-year-old winger scored both goals in the series-clinching victory that earned the Pens a berth in the Stanley Cup Final – becoming the first Pens rookie to score multiple goals in a Game 7.
“If there was a way you want to write it up when you’re a kid, this is kind of how it goes,” Rust said, who added that he hadn’t yet processed just what he’d done but once he got time to relax, it would start to hit him.
The nerves, however, began to hit him during his pregame nap. Fortunately, he was able to channel those into his performance on the ice.
“My nap wasn’t very long today,” he admitted with a smile. “I was kind of just sitting up looking at the ceiling, but it’s just one of those games where I just tried to feed off the emotions as best as I could.”
Head coach Mike Sullivan’s emotions about Rust’s night were just pure joy. Rust spent the first half of the season in the American Hockey League with Wilkes-Barre/Scranton before getting called up on Jan. 9, joining Sullivan – who had been his head coach down there before joining Pittsburgh on Dec. 12.
“I love what he brings to this team and couldn't be happier for him for his effort and his contribution as far as how he's helped this team win for four or five months now,” he said. “To see him get rewarded with a couple of goals is a thrill for all of us because he's such a great kid and he plays so hard.”
It’s the second time this postseason where Rust has been rewarded with a couple of goals in a playoff game, as he scored twice in Pittsburgh’s 6-3 series-clinching win in Game 5 of the First Round against the New York Rangers. He became the second rookie in NHL history to record multiple goals in two series-clinching wins after Jeremy Roenick in 1990.
What is it with him and these elimination games?
“I don’t know. I guess it just seems to work out that way,” he smiled.
After the first period concluded without a goal from either team, Rust opened the scoring just 1:55 into the second. Olli Maatta stretched a pass down the ice to Evgeni Malkin, who left it just inside the blue line for Chris Kunitz – who found his linemate trailing the play and hit him right on the blade. Rust wound up and fired a wrister past Lightning goalie Andrei Vasilevskiy.
“That first one I was kind of just coming right down the middle, and Kunitz gave me a great pass,” Rust said. “I just kind of shot it as hard as I could top glove and just kind of picked my corner.”
Rust has said in the past he’s not much of a finisher, and he claims that hasn’t changed – though we’d all beg to differ.
“I’m kind of sticking by what I said before,” he joked. “It’s just I’m kind of in that mode where I’m just getting the bounces and the breaks right now.”
Rust’s second goal, however, was even bigger – as it came just 30 seconds after the Lightning had evened the score at 1-1. Ben Lovejoy’s shot banked off the back boards to the front of the net, where Rust was waiting to stuff it past Vasilevskiy.
“It was just kind of a play off the backboards, and then I kind of just tried to smack it,” Rust said.
Rust was coming off of a terrific performance in Game 6, where he scored another absolutely clutch goal late in the third period. Before the puck went off his stick and into the back of the net, the Pens had let a 3-0 lead narrow into 3-2.
The Bolts were storming and the Pens were struggling to weather it – until Kunitz hit his linemate with a pass that sent him on a breakaway. He skated to the net, went for the deke and tucked the puck around Vasilevskiy.
The goal, which came with just over three minutes left in regulation, gave the Pens the breathing room they needed to come away with the eventual 5-2 win and the right to play in Game 7 tonight at CONSOL Energy Center – where Rust was again a hero.
Earlier this morning, Rust was asked just how much that confidence that goal had given him heading into this do-or-die scenario.
“It gives me a whole lot of confidence,” he said. “Not only that I can finally finish a breakaway, but that I can keep playing the way I’m playing and I’m going to be able to help this team win.”
That turned out to be an understatement, as he didn’t just help the team win – he was essentially the reason.
“Rusty, I can’t say enough about him,” Kunitz said. “To score the big goal last game to put us up, and then to come out tonight and score the first one and really get the building rocking. And then to have a great shift after they score to really cut the tension on the ice to get back in the lead. It was just a great working goal, and from there we were just playing hard.”