Pittsburgh Penguins' Bryan Rust, center, scores past Tampa Bay Lightning goalie Andrei Vasilevskiy, left, as Tampa Bay Lightning's Alex Killorn (17) defends during the second period of Game 7 of the NHL hockey Stanley Cup Eastern Conference Finals. (Gene Puskar/AP)
PITTSBURGH — Bryan Rust stood at the center of a media mob three rows deep, a smile on his face and camera lights in his eyes. While some visitors to the postgame locker room had scattered to find other Penguins to interview, there was little doubt Rust was at the center of it all.
He didn’t have words for it. Not for scoring two goals in Game 7 of the Eastern Conference final. Not for the overwhelming media attention, or the excitement of heading to the Stanley Cup final as a rookie. He was asked about it, again and again. He couldn’t quite capture the enormity of it.
Finally, though, he settled on the only description that seemed to fit: Surreal.
“So far, that’s pretty much the only emotion I’ve got. That and just excitement. We’re one step closer,” he paused, grinned, “and that’s all I got.”
In a game where so many were looking for the stars to shine, Rust became one instead. His two goals in the 2-1 win over the Lightning made him just the ninth rookie in NHL history to score multiple goals in a Game 7, the first since the Devils’ Adam Henrique in 2012. His five goals in the playoffs are the most by a Penguins rookie since 1970.
He seems to come up the biggest in the most important moments. In registering his second multi-goal game of the postseason, he became the second rookie in NHL history to score multiple goals in two series-clinching games. He also scored two goals, and added an assist, in Game 5 against the Rangers.
Rust didn’t have an explanation for that, either, saying, almost sheepishly, “I don’t know. It just seems to work out that way.”
Rust’s pregame nap was a little restless before Thursday’s game. He spent most of his time awake, staring at the ceiling. Another one of those surreal moments he’s talked about. But instead of letting those emotions overwhelm him, he fed off of them. It worked out, for both Rust and the Penguins.
He opened the game’s scoring with a snap shot 1:55 into the second period off assists from Evgeni Malkin and Chris Kunitz. After Tampa Bay’s Jonathan Drouin evened the score at the 9:36 mark, Rust scored again a minute later off a rebound.
“That was awesome,” Ben Lovejoy said of Rust’s performance. “He has done so much for our turnaround. His speed is incredible. ... He’s been awesome the last couple of games and a huge reason we’re going to the Stanley Cup final.”
Coach Mike Sullivan admitted Rust probably wasn’t the player he would’ve predicted to score two goals in the Eastern Conference final. Rust himself has joked he’s not the best finisher, and he stuck by that statement even after Game 7.
“I’m just getting the bounces and the breaks right now,” he said.
He didn’t finish with the hat trick — although he said his chances — but he did send the Penguins to the Stanley Cup final. A night he could’ve only imagined in his wildest dreams? That, he said, might have been the only place it lived.
Well, until Thursday, anyway.
“That’s the way you dream it up,” Rust said. “That pretty much sums it up right there.”