After some heat in the AHL, Evan Rodrigues and Kasperi Kapanen once dropped the gloves against each other earlier in their NHL careers. Rodrigues was a member of the Rochester Americans, up and down with the Buffalo Sabres, and Kapanen, who was demoted to the Toronto Marlies, played against each often. It boiled to the big league. Now, the pair are two-thirds of the Pittsburgh Penguins top line.
They dominated the Toronto Maple Leafs and the Auston Matthews line on Saturday night. According to NaturalStatTrick.com, they had 14 shot attempts but allowed just two at even strength.
And both Kapanen and Rodrigues are technically former Maple Leafs. However, Toronto merely owned Rodrigues’ RFA rights (as part of the Penguins deal for Kapanen) for a month in the 2020 offseason. Despite being the Pittsburgh Penguins 2014 first-round draft pick, Kapanen cut his teeth mainly in the Toronto Maple Leafs system and made his NHL debut with Toronto.
The pair were quite rude to their old friends in the Pittsburgh Penguins 7-1 win Saturday night.
It’s been quite a turn of events over the last several weeks. The Pittsburgh Penguins are without Evgeni Malkin and Sidney Crosby due to offseason surgeries and lost next-up top center Jeff Carter due to entering the COVID protocol on Thursday.
For now, Evan Rodrigues is the Penguins first-line center. And Kasperi Kapanen, in Bryan Rust’s injury absence, is the Penguins’ top-line RW.
“He’s a very skilled forward. I played against him a bunch when he was in Rochester. I was with Marlies–and my first actual fight in the NHL was against him,” Kapanen said on Friday. “So that’s kind of funny, but I think we’ve got good chemistry. He’s a good passer. He passes me the puck–when I put it on this tape, he can also score goals. So he’s been good for us so far.”
For the record, it looks like Kapanen landed the only punch of the fight.
After a heavy workload in the preseason and a stiff challenge from Penguins head coach Mike Sullivan to reach the elite level they believe he can reach, Kapanen is goalless in the first five games.
Kapanen has not been without chances at even strength or the power play. At even strength, he’s been on the ice for 24 scoring chances and nine high-danger chances. The Rodrigues line, however, has only scored one goal, according to NaturalStatTrick.com.
“Obviously, you want to score as many goals as possible right off the hop, but I’d be more worried if I didn’t have chances–and I’ve had a lot of those,” said Kapanen. “Just right now, it’s hitting six or seven posts, or I barely missed the net. It’s frustrating, but it’s only for four games in the season. I’ve got plenty of time, and what better to get my first than (Saturday)?”
Kapanen didn’t get that goal, but Rodrigues scored his third of the season. The Penguins will continue to need more offensive outbursts from the new top line.
Rodrigues continues to the what head coach Mike Sullivan termed “our Swiss Army knife.”
“…His versatility is one of his greatest strengths. The thing that I love about him is when we play him in the top six, he has a quiet confidence about him…,” said Sullivan. “When you play up the lineup like that, there’s an expectation, a pressure to perform, and there’s pressure to produce. ‘E-Rod’ is not afraid of that. As a matter of fact, it’s just the opposite. He gets excited about it.”
Rodrigues has had a bit of a ride since the early days of his NHL career in Buffalo. There’s been press box time, the downtimes in Buffalo, and fighting to earn ice time even in lesser roles.
Rodrigues spent time on the shelf in the Penguins’ last two playoff appearances, not part of the 12 forwards on the ice. In need, the Penguins and the coaches turned to Rodrigues from the start of training camp.
Sullivan said there wasn’t any epiphany but rather an accumulation of appreciation. Rodrigues earned it by doing whatever was necessary.
The player appreciates it, too.
“When your coach trusts you and believes in you, it gives you that extra confidence … And it’s always hard to kind of get into a rhythm when you’re in and out of the lineup, and you’re kind of one mistake away from being out of the lineup again,” Rodrigues said Saturday night. “So, since I’ve been traded here and have had the chance to play and get regular minutes, I think I’ve gotten back to the game that made me successful…”
And the next time Kapanen or Rodrigues drop the gloves, it may be for each other.