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Is the tide about to turn for the better for the Penguins with their injuries?

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What’s that? Good news abounds? The Penguins could use some with Bryan Rust and Kris Letang

NHL: Toronto Maple Leafs at Pittsburgh Penguins Charles LeClaire-USA TODAY Sports

One amazing item about the Penguins recent run of strong play is the faces missing from the lineup. Defensemen Kris Letang and Olli Maatta have been missing the past couple weeks with injury. Forwards Bryan Rust and now Zach Aston-Reese are injured as well.

Letang is obviously the best defenseman on the team and his absence has hurt stylistically, though inspired defensive efforts and a .962 goalie save percentage from February 23rd to now has led to success.

The missing forwards are perhaps more interesting. Rust and Aston-Reese represent probably the coaching staff’s two favorite wingers not named Jake Guentzel. Both these players can be used on either wing and on any line.

Aston-Reese had looked like he found a home on the left wing of Evgeni Malkin and Phil Kessel. Rust had been super-productive over the last 30 game stretch prior to his injury on the right side with Guentzel and Sidney Crosby. Losing those two key “swiss army knife” type of players could have been a tough loss, but it’s been back-filled as well as the defense with Jared McCann stepping up and playing well on the Crosby line, and Teddy Blueger fitting in decently enough with Malkin.

One player with bad news was Aston-Reese, rumored on the internet to have a hip issue from a March 10th game. The Pens initially classified this as a day-to-day injury, but Sullivan had to update that yesterday.

Aston-Reese will be out “longer term” now. Sullivan was asked if he expected ZAR back at some point this season and quickly answered yes. That’s a tough one to have downgraded, but perhaps cushioned a bit since Rust is making progress.

Practice time has been a premium with all these games and travel in March. The Pens only have four scheduled practices this month, one of them today.

However there are positive signs that some welcome returns could be on the way shortly.

Rust was able to join the team on the trip to Buffalo and participate in a no-contact jersey yesterday morning at the game day skate. Any time an injured player travels on a trip and is back on the ice with the team, that’s always a very clear sign his return is approaching, as coach Mike Sullivan confirmed after practice yesterday.

“We brought [Rust] on the trip because he’s getting close and we wanted to get him around the team, get him in the practices,” Sullivan said. “He’s feeling really good. Obviously he’s in a non-contact jersey, but his status is day to day and he’s getting close.”

Letang’s status seems a bit more up in the air. After being hurt on February 23rd his return took a tangible step joining the team for a skate on March 5th. Then Letang was said to be sick, so he hasn’t really been with the team since. He’s been considered “day to day” ever since the injury, yet it’s been three weeks tomorrow since the injury and there’s not much of a public update.

Given that the injury has been described as to the neck, and not much is known, there’s a lot of flashbacks to 2017 where Letang attempted to play through an issue but eventually had to be shutdown for surgery. There’s no indication this injury is like the 2019 injury, but anytime you’ve got Letang, an injury, and now being out closer to a month than the “day to day” aspect it was initially described as, there’s bound to be some interest and perhaps even skepticism in the developments.

“[Letang and Maatta] are making progress,” Sullivan said yesterday - noting that both defensemen stayed in Pittsburgh but did on-ice work with skills coach Ty Hennes on Thursday.

There is a practice later today, so it will be interesting to keep an eye on how much work Rust and especially Letang get (or don’t get). The Pens are exactly half-way through a 12 game stretch in 25 days in March that started on the 5th, so the games are not going to relent with a weekend back-to-back set of home games, followed by a four city road tour in an every other day rhythm beginning with a super-important game Tuesday night in Carolina.

By all accounts it looks like the Pens will get a welcomed return soon from Rust, but the status of Letang is hanging out there and will be an important question that’s still to be determined.

UPDATE:

More good news, Letang and Rust both joined the team in practice Friday in normal “contact” jerseys.