PITTSBURGH — The Pittsburgh Penguins are down two of their top wingers, coach Mike Sullivan said after practice at PPG Paints Arena on Tuesday.
Bryan Rust is being evaluated for a lower-body injury, while Rickard Rakell is “out longer term” with an upper-body injury, Sullivan said. Neither player practiced Tuesday.
Rust has been one of the most productive players for the Penguins, scoring nine goals and 16 points in 17 games. He has been a staple on captain Sidney Crosby’s top line.
Rakell, a regular on Evgeni Malkin’s line, was off to a terrible start. He has only four assists and no goals through 17 games.
“Injuries are part of the game,” Sullivan said while noting the Penguins have been relatively healthy this season.
The Penguins are 6-2-0 since going 3-6-0 to open the season. They are fourth in the Eastern Conference wild-card standings, two points behind the Carolina Hurricanes.
Pittsburgh will play the New York Rangers at home Wednesday night. The team will travel to Buffalo to play the Sabres on Friday night and return to Pittsburgh for a game against the Toronto Maple Leafs on Saturday night. After that, the Penguins play five of their next six games on the road.
How much will this impact the Penguins?
A lot. The Penguins count on their top two lines to do the bulk of their scoring. That was happening even without Rakell contributing, but losing Rust deals a blow to the top line that has carried the club recently. There are no obvious options to replace either Rust or Rakell, as most of the forwards general manager Kyle Dubas brought into the organization during the offseason are of the bottom-six type.
Rust’s absence is an especially tough blow. He’s been the Penguins’ best winger this season from a production and consistency standpoint. He’s also one of their top penalty killers and an option for the mix with the top power play.
The Penguins don’t have many players who bring Rust’s tenacity and grind to go along with his speed. He’s a leader both on and off the ice.
If his absence is only for a few games, the Penguins probably will be OK. But if he misses weeks, the Penguins could lose ground in a playoff race in which they’re already on the chase. — Rob Rossi, Penguins senior writer
What it means for Crosby and Malkin
This is a real problem for the Penguins. Even more pressure falls on Crosby and Malkin, especially if Rust misses any time. Rust has been the Penguins’ best winger this season and he is Crosby’s preferred right wing.
As currently built, the Penguins have no sensible option to replace Rakell in the top six. Should Rust miss any time, they’ll be minus two top-six players. This strikes me as a significant problem for a team that already struggles to produce depth scoring.
Crosby and Malkin have been great this season. They’ll probably have to be even greater now. — Josh Yohe, Penguins staff writer
(Photo: Philip G. Pavely / USA Today)