Evgeni Malkin and Bryan Rust. (Getty Images)
Bryan Rust's health, Evgeni Malkin's drought and Chris Kunitz's hot streak could swing the balance of the Stanley Cup final for Pittsburgh, for better or worse.
PITTSBURGH – It bodes well for the Pittsburgh Penguins' Stanley Cup chances if the term "big line" applies to any number of their forward trios. Sidney Crosby between Conor Sheary and Patric Hornqvist? Sure, that's a big line, by virtue of Sid playing on it. The 'HBK' line of Carl Hagelin, Nick Bonino and Phil Kessel has been the talk of the playoffs.
But the line du jour giving opponents fits? Evgeni Malkin, Bryan Rust and Chris Kunitz. Rust has scored in three straight games dating back to the Eastern Conference final, including a breakaway dagger in Game 6 against the Tampa Bay Lightning, both goals in a 2-1 Game 7 victory and the first tally of the night in Game 1 of the final against the San Jose Sharks. Each of those Rust goals was assisted by Malkin or Kunitz.
And this line could hold the key to the rest of the final – because its fate could go in so many different directions.
Rust was knocked out of Game 1 Monday night after taking a big hit from Patrick Marleau. Rust skated Wednesday and was visibly shocked to find a swarm or reporters waiting for him in the Penguins dressing room. The current status, according to Rust and coach Mike Sullivan: game-time decision. It’s risky to bring Rust back so quickly from a head injury, but the Penguins look like they’ll insert their hottest scorer in the lineup for Game 2.
“What you wee see with Rusty is just his skating ability, his speed, his tenacity on the puck, his compete level,” said coach Mike Sullivan Wednesday afternoon. “He’s got a sneaky shot. He can shoot the puck. When you think of those attributes, it all adds up to someone that has the potential to score. He scored a few goals here throughout the course of the post-season. His confidence is probably at an all-time high. That helps.”
Kunitz, 36, has enjoyed a mighty resurgence lately in the playoffs. He has points in six straight games and nine points in his past 10 games. Sullivan praised Kunitz’s proactive approach on the forecheck and ability to force the play and “create havoc” with a physical forecheck.
The weird thing about this hot line, though? Malkin isn’t scoring. The towering pivot who ripped off 14 goals and 36 points in 24 games and won the Conn Smythe Trophy in 2009 has just one goal in his past 13 games. Does that constitute a slump? And does that mean there’s room for the Kunitz-Malkin-Rust line to get hotter? It’s a scary thought for the San Jose Sharks. Sullivan doesn’t see Malkin as struggling, however.
“Geno is playing well for us,” Sullivan said. “The thing we watch most is his scoring-chance involvement, his primary chances himself. He’s been involved in a fair number of chances, both primary and secondary, over the last two series. We feel real comfortable with his game. We know it’s a matter of time before he scores.”
A Malkin breakout seems inevitable, just as it was for Crosby before he went off for three game-winning goals in the Tampa Bay series. It could spell curtains for the Sharks if No. 71 starts filling the net, though they don’t want to spend their time worrying about that.
“I don’t think that way,” said Sharks center Logan Couture. “I don’t look at their team as individuals. You look at them as a team, and they’ve had scoring throughout their lineup for these playoffs, so any guy on that team can strike at any time. It’s the same with our team. You win as a team, you lose as a team. If you ask him, it doesn’t matter if he scores, I’m sure, if they win games. And it’s the same for a lot of guys in our room.”
Asking Geno wasn't in the cards. Malkin wasn’t available to speak Wednesday, probably because he just became a father Tuesday. He and partner Anna Kasterova welcomed a son, Nikita. Maybe Malkin's newfound papa pride will light the match that starts a new hot streak. His goal-scoring drought and Rust’s health have the potential to swing the balance of this series depending on which way they break.
Matt Larkin is a writer and editor at The Hockey News and a regular contributor to the thn.com Post-To-Post blog. For more great profiles, news and views from the world of hockey, subscribe to The Hockey News magazine. Follow Matt Larkin on Twitter at @THNMattLarkin