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Underdog Rodrigues Shattering Expectations, Lifting Crosby & Penguins, too



Pittsburgh Penguins, Evan Rodrigues, Kasperi Kapanen

You don’t often see the Pittsburgh Penguins blitz a goalie with 50 shots and struggle to score three. Montreal Canadiens goalie Jake Allen stopped all but one of the first 46 shots, but this isn’t about the Penguins shoot-from-the-rafters offensive approach against the Montreal Canadiens. It’s about Sidney Crosby, Evan Rodrigues, and what could be.

Rodrigues had 12 shots Saturday night, including one goal and a few other Grade A chances.

It wasn’t long ago that Bryan Rust was a fourth-line grinder with more speed and grit than finish. Almost overnight, his game flourished in his mid-20s, and Rust is in line for a big payday next summer when his current contract expires. Consecutive 20-goal seasons will get you paid.

However, Rust is out with his second lower-body injury of the season.

The changes in Rust’s game mirror those we’re seeing from Evan Rodrigues. The words sound similar, too.

“I think just supporting the puck. You know, playing with those two, they like to play three guys close and make tic-tac-toe plays,” Rodrigues said. “Being out when you get in trouble, you have a guy near you. So yeah, doing that and just using my speed, getting in on pucks, those two are very dangerous players. Hope I can get in (on the forecheck), get the puck to them and let them create.”

Though Rodrigues’ math was a bit off on Saturday night, he said the Penguins top line with Sidney Crosby, Jake Guentzel, and he had 25 shots. He sold his line short by one. The trio combined for 26 shots (5, 9, and 12, respectively). The Penguins 6-3 loss certainly was not because the top line lacked offensive push.

Saturday evening, the Montreal Canadiens pregame show asked this writer about Rodrigues. With surprise in their voice, they marveled that he’s second on the team in scoring and had seven goals. Rodrigues scored No. 8 in the third period.

For those who followed his career, there was some skepticism that he was in Buffalo because he and Jack Eichel were buddies at Boston U. However, the undrafted free agent hasn’t scored double-digit goals in his seven-year career. The closest he came was nine goals in 74 games in 2017-18.

Buffalo shuffled him to the press box before including him as a throw-in piece when the Penguins acquired him with Conor Sheary for Dominik Kahun at the 2020 NHL trade deadline.

The Penguins and head coach Mike Sullivan put Rodrigues in the press box, too. Injuries created the necessity, and Rodrigues began to break into the Penguins lineup before COVID shut down the world, including the NHL.

In training camp, Rodrigues, 28, had to win his place in the Penguins lineup. The Sullivan-described “Swiss Army knife”, has been the Pittsburgh Penguins second-line center, fourth-line center, third-line winger, and now first-line RW.

Rodrigues has eight goals and 15 points in 21 games. It’s by far the best run of his career. Now he’s playing beside an improving Sidney Crosby, though Rodrigues just might be the right fit at the right time, too.

“I think (Crosby’s) timing is improving. He’s seeing it better. I think the fact that he gets a multi-point game (Saturday), I hope it’ll be a confidence booster for him,” Sullivan said of his top-line center. “Guys of his stature, they put a lot of pressure on themselves to produce offense because they know the team relies on them. So there might not be anybody that puts more pressure on himself than Sid. I hope that he’ll take a little pressure off himself…”

Here’s why “E-Rod” may be the right fit at the right time for the Pittsburgh Penguins captain.

Rodrigues’ career arc bears might resemble Rust’s, though Rodrigues has added a couple of creative layers to his offensive game. Watch Rodrigues play with the puck in the offensive zone. On Saturday, he unleashed 12 shots, and he can be quick on the trigger (like Rust), but Rodrigues also has a center’s brain–he’ll hang onto pucks and look for plays. He also knows how to find open spots in the zone.

Last month, Kasperi Kapanen talked up his former AHL rival, Rodrigues, too.

“He’s a very skilled forward… He’s a good passer. He passes me the puck–when I put it on this tape, he can also score goals,” Kapanen said.

Rodrigues’ puck poise has been noticeable this season. In Mike Sullivan’s lingo, that’s “holding onto pucks,” but Rodrigues has produced on every line this season.

Crosby agreed.

“He’s a great skater, so he’s using speed, and he’s got really good hands. So he’s shown that since the start of the year, he can hold on to pucks, and he’s got great patience and making plays,” Crosby said. “When I think of Roddy, I just think of a really good shooter and someone who’s got some poise with the puck. He likes to hold on to it. So, you know, whether it’s going to the net or trying to get open. He’s a guy that’ll hang on to it, make plays…”

I’m not sure how Jim Colony of 93-7 the Fan and I feel about Crosby calling him Roddy. We’ve put great effort into “E-Rod,” but their room, their rules.

Rodrigues is also a righty, which is Crosby’s sweet tooth–he prefers right-handed right wings. A creative winger who is developing his game and adding more finish.

Who knows where this is going. There may even be a full-time opening on Crosby’s right next year. Rodrigues could force that issue, too. The undrafted, sparingly used Rodrigues is breaking free of past labels and notions. He’s pushing past expectations that he’s a 13th forward or bubble player.

Rodrigues is scoring for the Pittsburgh Penguins, and no one can say it’s because he’s playing with Sidney Crosby. No, the underdog “E-Rod” is playing with Crosby because he was scoring.

Getting 26 shots and a few points in one game isn’t a bad beginning to what could be another surprising and successful pairing.

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Pittsburgh Hockey Now Editor-in-Chief, formerly 93.7 The Fan, Sportsnet Hockey Tonight, NHL Home Ice. Catch Dan tweeting @theDanKingerski and the official @pghhockeynow account.

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[…] Pittsburgh Hockey Now: Evan Rodrigues shattering expectations […]

David B Barkley
David B Barkley
7 months ago

I think this is the worst I have seen Crosby ever play hopefully he rebounds and is able to carry this team

7 months ago

I agree. It feels like he doesn’t have that upper gear any more and Giving way in the face off circle may be only the beginning.


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