With their run of recent playoff losses, the Pittsburgh Penguins have perhaps lost their grip on the title of “NHL’s most infuriatingly competent team.” But Wednesday night, as they beat St. Louis 5-3 at home for their ninth straight victory, a run of both good fortune and good sense to capitalize on good fortune served as a reminder of how they’ve been such an enviable franchise for so many years.
As the Penguins sat with a 3-2 deficit and under eight minutes remaining, young defenseman John Marino intercepted a potential Blues clearance in his offensive zone. He sent the puck along to Jake Guentzel, wingman to the stars, and Guentzel in turn fired it toward Sidney Crosby at the crease. The puck bounced off goaltender Jordan Binnington and into in a perfect spot for Crosby to tap it in and tie the game. Binnington, furious because he believed he had been interfered with, got his coach to challenge the play, but the refs determined that Crosby was outside the blue ice, and therefore saddled the Blues with a delay of game penalty.
That’s where it got devastating for St. Louis. Just 12 seconds into the power play, as the Penguins moved it around their zone after a great jump start on the attack by Crosby, it was Evan Rodrigues who found himself wide open for a one-timer and took it with reckless abandon, beating Binnington on the near side for a massive shift in momentum. The Penguins would add one more a few minutes later for the final.
You might be asking yourself, “Who?” and I am here to tell you. Rodrigues has emerged without warning from the very fringes of the NHL to play a gigantic role on this Penguins team that’s battled injuries to Crosby (who missed 12 games) and Evgeni Malkin (who’s still out). It’s nothing short of a shock, because in six previous NHL seasons Rodrigues has never played to a level anything like the one he’s at right now. In just 32 games, he’s already blasted past his previous career high in scoring, putting up 14 goals where before his maximum was nine. And he’s just one point away from tying his personal best of 29, which he achieved in a whopping 74 games for Buffalo in 2018–19.
And as the Penguins have enjoyed this run of dominance, Rodrigues has been especially impressive, most notably when he earned his first career hat trick on Sunday against the San Jose Sharks in an 8-5 barnburner.
(Here’s an aside I need to get off my chest: Bryan Rust, who’s been molten-hot in two games since returning from injury, got a empty netter for the hat trick at the end of this one, after Rodrigues had his, and more hats came down to the ice. Who was holding out on poor Evan?!)
Anyway, just a minute in, Rodrigues took a long pass from below the red line on his own end and, in a one-on-one situation against a defender, calmly cut to the middle of the ice to give himself room to fire the puck top shelf. Just three minutes later he followed it up with another goal scored by moving to his backhand on the doorstep during a Penguins counterattack. And finally, near the end of the third, with the score 6-5, Rodrigues scored a slightly calmer version of his goal in the Blues game. He was set up in the same position for a one-timer, but had to take the pass off his skate and instead sent a wrister through traffic and into the net.
In layman’s terms, this is the Mark Donk Phenomenon in action.
But in this instance, it’s not just merely sticking a cast-off alongside a superstar. Here’s something interesting I noticed while playing around with Natural Stat Trick’s line tool. Last season, in 35 games for the Penguins, Rodrigues struggled to give his guys an advantage in scoring chances while he was on the ice without Pittsburgh’s star centers. This year, though, the difference between Rodrigues playing with and without Crosby is negligible—the Penguins are fantastic either way. Without Sid, but with Rodrigues on the ice, the Pens are taking 63.31 percent of the overall scoring chances in 262:58 of 5-on-5. With both of them out there, the Pens are doing 61.20 percent in 175:03.
The Penguins have been consistent winners, with 15 straight years in the postseason, not just because they were lucky enough to fall into Crosby and Malkin all those years ago, but because they’ve consistently supplemented those two (and replaced them in times of injury) with weirdly productive depth guys that nobody saw coming. Names like Tyler Kennedy, Blake Comeau, Justin Schultz, and of course Guentzel all come to mind as guys who either flew under the radar in the draft or seemed down and out with other franchises but contributed for Pittsburgh in a way that they didn’t, and maybe couldn’t, anywhere else.
Rodrigues belongs in both groups, really. He went undrafted but was signed by Buffalo, making his debut at the tail end of the 2015–16 season. While he initially looked to be a promising potential compliment to Jack Eichel, his performances started trending in the wrong direction, and the Sabres sent him to the Pens, who sent him to the Leafs, who didn’t want to sign him and so directed him back toward Pittsburgh. And after one fairly anonymous year, he’s now a sudden superstar on a one-year, $1 million contract, showing the versatility to play both winger and center, penalty kill and power play, while scoring in a dazzling variety of fashions.
This just doesn’t happen. Hockey players, particularly ones as unwanted as Rodrigues was, don’t become standout, first-line caliber talents at age 28. They just don’t! But that’s part of the Penguins’ magic, and along with other pluses like Guentzel’s tireless scoring pace, Kris Letang’s timeless play on the blue line, and goaltender Tristan Jarry’s strong comeback from an ugly 2020–21, it’s what’s keeping the Penguins in playoff position in hockey’s toughest division, even with Malkin still absent.
You can wave your hands and tell me that this will all go away soon enough, and that Rodrigues has done nothing more in this short time than elevate himself from forgotten fourth-liner to future Remembered Guy. But even with the memory of ignominious playoff departures fresher than the Cup wins, I’m still mighty scared of the Penguins, and I’ve been around long enough to treat this year’s collection of Donks and Flibbets as a serious threat.