Steven Stamkos (left) and Bryan Rust (Photo by Justin K. Aller/Getty Images)
The Pittsburgh Penguins have a star-studded lineup to be sure, but had faltered in previous playoffs because they didn't have enough depth beyond those stars. That has not been the case this spring.
For a guy with such blinding speed, Bryan Rust sure took his time becoming a big-time hero. And that’s exactly what he is, perhaps Notre Dame’s most unlikely hero since Daniel Ruettiger.
Four years at Notre Dame, a couple of years in the minors and no full-time NHL work until about five months ago. But that did not prevent Rust from being the Game 7 hero of the Eastern Conference final in the Pittsburgh Penguins’ 2-1 win over the Tampa Bay Lightning. And more yet may be to come, because if the Penguins are going to emerge victorious over the San Jose Sharks in the final, they’re going to need the kind of speed that Rust brings to the game.
Despite taking a circuitous route to the NHL, Rust was one of the key additions the Penguins made mid-season that set them on the route to the Stanley Cup final. And that never meant that he didn’t think he would be in this situation one day. “What I remember about Bryan is that he always had the belief that he’d be able to play at this level,” said Notre Dame associate coach Andy Slaggert, who coached Rust in college hockey from 2010 to 2014. “He had a quiet confidence and he was not afraid of the moment. It was never arrogant or boastful.”
Rust was drafted by the Penguins from USA Hockey’s under-18 team and the Penguins were more than happy to have him play all four years of college hockey. Rust used that time well, making sure he used the ample time between games in college hockey to improve his fitness.
“He’s always had good speed, but it’s that separation, that extra gear that he’s really developed over the past couple of years.” Slaggert said. “He worked really hard on his speed and by improving his strength and conditioning, that separation evolved. He stayed here four years and got his degree, and by that time he was physically prepared to play in the AHL and to have success.”
It’s no coincidence that the Penguins were able to break through in the playoffs after so many years of disappointment only after they supplemented their roster with some quality depth players. That has taken a lot of pressure off the likes of Sidney Crosby, Evgeni Malkin and Kris Letang and, most importantly, bolstered their goaltending depth behind Marc-Andre Fleury. It’s impossible to say whether Fleury would have been able to put his playoff yips behind him had he not been injured, but there is no doubt the presence of Matt Murray, who carried them through Rounds 2 and 3, and Jeff Zatkoff, who was key in Round 1, has been a huge positive factor.
Despite not putting the puck in the back of the net, both Crosby and Malkin were terrific in Game 7. But had they not had the depth that players such as Rust provided, that inability to score could have been fatal in a big playoff game once again.
So now the Penguins open the final at home against the Sharks Monday night in what should be an outstanding Stanley Cup final. The Sharks are a big, puck possession team, but have a good modicum of speed for such a big Western Conference team and also have some formidable depth. In fact, it would be hard to find two teams that have more depth up front than the Penguins and Sharks, which is a pretty good reason why they find themselves facing each other in the final. The Sharks will have to keep up with Pittsburgh, a team that will be intent on making the final a track meet. And the Penguins will have to brace themselves at their depleted back end for a team that is going to come at them in waves and will have a huge presence in front of their net.
As for the Lightning, even they would have to acknowledge that the better team won this series. Full marks to Tampa Bay for getting as far as it did with the obstacles that were placed in front of its players. They started the playoffs without Stamkos or defenseman Anton Stralman and lost the possible Vezina winner in Ben Bishop. It seemed their second long playoff caught up to them and left them with nothing more to give.
There will now be a little more than a month of speculation facing Stamkos, who has almost certainly played his last game in a Lightning uniform. Where he ends up is anybody’s guess, but those who think the Toronto Maple Leafs are a slam-dunk are kidding themselves. But wherever Stamkos ends up, the Lightning proved to themselves that they can be very, very good without him.
In fact, the Lighting face an off-season where it will be more important for them to mend fences with prodigal son Jonathan Drouin than trying to convince Stamkos to stay. Unless there was too much bad blood spilled during his seven-week suspension, there is no reason why Drouin can’t stay with the Lightning and have a fruitful career. He has earned the right to come in next season and take over for Stamkos as the offensive go-to player for this franchise.