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Evan Rodrigues’ record-tying Stanley Cup start is no surprise to past, present teammates

SUNRISE, Fla. — Evan Rodrigues smiled wide Monday night when a Toronto columnist asked what he would have said before the Stanley Cup Final had he been told two games in that he’d be outscoring Connor McDavid, Leon Draisaitl and Zach Hyman, who combined for 127 regular-season goals.

“It’s pretty cool,” the Florida Panthers forward said, then shifting into wise-veteran mode and showing some humility in not giving the Edmonton Oilers, down 0-2 in the best-of-seven championship series, extra motivation going back home.

“I’m not too worried about the point totals or goals. At the end of the day, we’re looking for wins here and, yeah, that’s all I care about. It’s nice to contribute. It’s nice to contribute to a win.”

The 30-year-old Rodrigues isn’t only outscoring those three talents 3-0 on the goal blotter two games into the Final. He’s outscoring the 13 Oilers forwards who have dressed by the same margin.

An undrafted player out of Boston University playing on his fourth team in five years, Rodrigues’ three goals are tied for the most in NHL history through a player’s first two Cup Final games. On Monday night, in a 4-1 Florida victory during which Rodrigues scored a pair of third-period goals, he became the first player in Panthers history with a multi-goal game in the Final. His three goals in two games this series have matched his total from Florida’s 17 games in the first three rounds.

Rodrigues’ first goal — a snapshot after an Evan Bouchard turnover — came three minutes into the third period, breaking a 1-1 tie. It stood as Rodrigues’ first game-winning goal in 35 career playoff games. His second goal snapped Edmonton’s run of 34 consecutive penalty kills over 12 games.

“So happy for him, proud of him,” said Matthew Tkachuk, whose line Rodrigues joined during the Eastern Conference final series against the New York Rangers. “Playing with him the last few games, he reads the game so well. That’s two games in a row scoring some big goals for us. He’s a super smart player and I’m really happy to see him get rewarded right now.”

Tkachuk believed Rodrigues’s impact in Game 2 went beyond his goals. He played steady hockey, moved his feet well and forechecked. The Panthers had more than 70 percent of the expected goal share with him on the ice at five-on-five, according to Natural Stat Trick.

Rodrigues signed with the Buffalo Sabres out of college, but his breakout didn’t come until after the Pittsburgh Penguins traded for him. The Penguins dealt with early-season injuries in 2021-22, which led to Rodrigues getting more opportunity. He capitalized, scoring a career-high 19 goals and 43 points. Still, he didn’t land a long-term contract in free agency, so he went to the Colorado Avalanche, then the defending champions, on a one-year, $2 million deal. He continued to prove his worth with the Avalanche, averaging a career high in ice time (17:51 per game) and playing in the Avalanche’s top six.

“He’s super underrated and can do a lot of different things in a lot of situations,” said Vegas Golden Knights forward Jack Eichel, who played with Rodrigues at Boston University and in Buffalo.

“The more opportunity he’s gotten over his career, the better he’s done,” said Avalanche coach Jared Bednar, who credited Rodrigues with being able to play alongside top players. “I think he’s really comfortable in his own skin, knows what his strengths are.”

But a long playoff run eluded Rodrigues before this season. He was on the ice when Artemi Panarin eliminated the Penguins with a Round 1, Game 7 overtime winner in 2022. He was on the ice again the next year as Colorado couldn’t find an equalizer in the dying seconds of its Round 1, Game 7 loss to Seattle.

Rodrigues had never made it out of the first round until joining the Panthers. He was so excited for the Stanley Cup Final to start, he said, that he wished Game 1 could have been a 1 p.m. start.

Florida general manager Bill Zito signed Rodrigues to a four-year, $3 million average annual value contract last summer — the longest, most lucrative contract of the forward’s career. He’s proven to be worth the commitment. After a 39-point regular season — his third year in a row with more than 35 — he’s given the Panthers six goals and 11 points in 19 playoff games.

“He’s a bit of a chameleon,” said Kyle Okposo, who also played with Rodrigues in Buffalo. “If you look at the teams that he’s played on and who he’s played with, it’s not an easy thing to go play with some of the top players in the world.

“He has a unique confidence about him where at times when guys are playing with those top guys, they just want to give him the puck and get out of their way, and Evan is a guy that he makes a lot of plays and he has the confidence to keep it on a stick and make the right play at the right time. And I think that that’s why he’s had so much success everywhere he’s gone.”

Monday night was an example of that. He started on the second line with Sam Bennett and Tkachuk, then was elevated to the top line in the third period with Aleksander Barkov and Sam Reinhart until Barkov got hurt midway through the period.

Coach Paul Maurice has said this postseason that he likes to play Carter Verhaeghe next to Barkov in short spurts of games, but they usually have an expiration date. Maurice saw something during Game 2 that made him elevate Rodrigues.

Rodrigues went on what Maurice called “a world tour of our lineup” throughout the regular season. Early on, the coach had him on Barkov’s line but thought he, understandably, was too deferential to his linemates. Now he’s found his game and can fit in wherever Florida needs.

“It’s something I’ve taken pride in my whole career, being able to play up and down the lineup, power play, penalty kill,” Rodrigues said. “It’s nice to contribute to wins. At the end of the day, it doesn’t matter who it is. … We’re looking for wins here, and we’re happy with the results.”

When Rodrigues was on the Avalanche in 2022-23, he watched the team raise its 2022 Stanley Cup banner ahead of the season opener. Though Rodrigues wasn’t part of the championship-winning team, he felt chills as tribute videos played and the banner rose into the rafters.

Now, in large part thanks to his early series heroics, he’s two wins away from another banner night — this time one where he’d be fully a part of the celebration.

(Photo: Bruce Bennett / Getty Images)

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