A Bryan Rust hat trick leads the Penguins past the Islanders

The Pittsburgh Penguins scored six goals against the New York Islanders Saturday night to close the gap in the East division standings to just two points in a 6-3 win

After the Penguins blew a 3-0 lead against the Philadelphia Flyers a few weeks ago, I said the Pens weren’t better than the Flyers and Boston Bruins and were more inconsistent than the Washington Capitals and Islanders.

I criticized the Penguins for their lack of effort and an apparent lack of team interest. I’m beyond happy to have been proven wrong.

Since that loss, the Penguins have gone 9-2-1 while dealing with injuries that would cripple most teams. Despite a two game blip against the Boston Bruins and New Jersey Devils last weekend, the Pens have continued to churn out positive results.

Saturday’s 6-3 win over the Islanders may be the important of the season — especially on the heels of two excellent wins over the Buffalo Sabres. Two wins over the Sabres, to most, is nothing; two wins over the Islanders will turn some heads.

Step one? Complete.

A lot of factors have led to the Penguins turnaround — the resurgence of Tristan Jarry and Casey DeSmith, the return of Brian Dumoulin and subsequent lockdown team defense and the overall excellence of the Sidney Crosby line to name a few.

A huge reason why has been Bryan Rust, too. And that was very evident against the Islanders.

Rust has long been an underrated member of the Penguins, often not given the credit he deserves from people outside the Burgh. He’s still a streaky player, but his offensive game took such a step forward last season. He’s been a driving force for the Pens this season.

Entering the Isles contest with 25 points in 34 games, his numbers didn’t truly exemplify his impact. His hat trick against the Isles did though.

On the power play early in the second period, Jard McCann, Crosby and Rust played tic-tac-toe to lead to Rust’s first goal on the PP. A Kris Letang blast from the blue line was unable to be contained by Isles goaltender Semyon Varlamov, and Rust outmuscled him to fire a backhander into the net for his second. A solid hustle play, being in the right place at the right time, led to Rust’s hatty-clinching empty-net goal.

The fourth hat trick of Rust’s career — extending his now six game point streak — moved him into a three-way tie for the team lead in goals. Of course, he’s tied with Crosby and Jake Guentzel.

On a line with Crosby and Guentzel, Rust isn’t just holding his own; he’s driving the others at times.

These Penguins can fly!

10 different Penguins etched their names on the scoresheet Saturday night, led by multi-point nights from Rust, Crosby, Guenztel, McCann and Letang.

That Crosby line continues to be absolutely mind-blowing, combining for seven points Saturday and continuing to drive the Penguins’ offensive production. The trio is nearly unstoppable when out on the ice.

What is surprising, but perhaps shouldn’t be, is how good McCann has been. Aside from Crosby, Guentzel and Rust (and Anthony Angello shockingly), McCann has driven the Pens’ offense to the tune of a 4.4 relative Corsi for percentage (which roughly means the Penguins perform four and a half percentage points better at possessing and shooting the puck with him on the ice).

The Penguins are much better off when McCann is on the ice at even-strength, and his power play prowess recently (two goals and an assist in the last three games) will make it hard to move him off the second line once Evgeni Malkin and Kasperi Kapanen return.

Another player who will be hard to bench once the team is healthy scored a goal Saturday, moving his point streak to three games. Frederick Gaudreau has been very, very good for the Penguins this season in a bottom-six role.

Despite a limited sample size, Gaudreau’s play speaks for itself — his three points in six games is slightly better than Jankowski’s five in 31 games and Lafferty’s four in 24 games. Although, Lafferty did pick up an assist on a nice team play leading to Gaudreau’s snapshot goal.

I don’t know why Gaudreau has found it so hard to stick on a roster at the NHL level, but he needs to stick with the Penguins.

https://twitter.com/penguins/status/1375954511618056196

Evan Rodrigues and Crosby picked up the other goals, Rodrigues’ coming courtesy of his signature knuckle puck and Crosby’s courtesy of his patented backhander.

Scoring six goals is always nice, but it’s even sweeter coming against a Barry Trotz-coached defense.

These Penguins can score, and it can come from all over the lineup. Apparently, no matter who’s in the lineup, too.

The power play is clicking, and so are the Penguins

With the recent special teams surge, the Penguins’ power play has climbed up above 20% effectiveness. The 16th best power play in the NHL may not seem special, and it’s not really, but it finally starting to click.

Even with Evgeni Malkin out of the lineup, there is far too much talent on the ice for the Penguins to have a power play that is an Achilles heel. If anything, the power play should be one area where the Pens are dominating opponents.

With the high-octane style of play, there will be chances afforded to opposing teams but those chances were coming hot and heavy to begin the season.

Over the last two games, the Penguins have converted on four of eight chances, and the common denominator has been McCann. McCann ripped two goals against the Buffalo Sabres last Thursday, and he assisted Rust’s power play goal Saturday night.

With a lineup of Crosby, Guentzel, Rust, McCann and Letang, the Penguins have put on a clinic. Yes, the passing remains a huge sticking point — overpassing to the point of insanity at times — but McCann is someone with a wicked shot who has come out shooting.

The Penguins have the ability to pass and skate circles around the opposing team while man up, but all of that skill means nothing if they don’t actually put shots on net.

With a power scoring one or two goals a game, the Penguins will be very, very difficult to put away.

The slot in front of Jarry/DeSmith is a no-Pens-land

The Penguins’ defensive presence in front of the net this season has been pretty poor.

Playing defense, in general, has been a struggle at times, although the turnaround has been miraculous as the season has worn on. One area where the Penguins have continued to struggle, however, has been in front of Jarry and DeSmith.

The Islanders’ third goal Saturday was a prime example of yet another opposing player finding a bubble in the middle of the Penguins defense; it was known Penguins killer Jordan Eberle who capitalized this time.

On a 4-on-4 chance late in the third period, Brian Dumoulin played the man with puck behind the net, leaving a passing lane through the middle of the ice. Cody Ceci completely lost his coverage, playing way out along the boards, and Eberle used that pocket of space to secure enough time to snap a goal over Jarry’s glove.  Eberle had six feet of space between him and the nearest defender.

The Penguins just seem to lose men in front of the net, giving away Grade-A scoring chances to the opposing team. Saturday was just not a banner night for defending across the board.

The Islanders’ first goal came off a poor line change, but Letang shouldn’t be immune to criticism in his play leading to the goal. With Isles forward Mat Barzal flying through the neutral zone, Letang lazily skated toward the boards to meet him at the slowly moving puck — taking an awful angle on the play.

Instead of falling back and playing Barzal as he bore down on Jarry, Letang basically gave Barzal a free run on Jarry. And just like that, Barzal’s lengthy goal drought was over.

The Isles’ second goal came courtesy of Barzal absolutely blowing by Marcus Pettersson to the net and leaving a puck for teammate Anthony Beauvillier, with John Marino giving Beauvillier an easy goal after choosing to play Barzal instead of Beauvillier.

Three tough goals for Jarry, and three tough looks from an otherwise stout Pens’ defense of late.

With a win over the Isles Monday night, the Penguins can move into second place in the East division standings. Puck drop is scheduled for 7:00 p.m. AT&T SportsNet will provide the local coverage and ESPN+ will cover nationally.

What did you think of the Penguins’ performance against the Islanders? Let me know in the comments below!