Jack Eichel might be part of the reason that the Crosby and Malkin-less Penguins went five games before marking a regulation loss in 2021-22.
Why? It all goes back to the 2014-15 Boston University men’s hockey season, when Eichel and current Penguins forward Evan Rodrigues powered the squad to the 2015 NCAA finals.
In 2014-15, Evan Rodrigues was a senior at Boston University. After recording 34 points in his first college season and 14 in his next, he racked up more than both those years combined during his explosive 61-point senior campaign— in large part thanks to coach David Quinn’s midseason discovery that soft-handed Rodrigues excelled alongside budding star Jack Eichel.
Fast forward to six years later, and Rodrigues is skating as the Penguins’ first-line center. It’s not a position that was projected for him back when he signed a one-year, $1 million contract with the Penguins in July— but it’s also not a role without precedent.
At the top of the BU lineup, Eichel connected again and again with Rodrigues because Rodrigues knew exactly where to go: straight to the net, not matter how many shoves you had to endure to stand there. Here, you can see a cross-ice pass from Eichel (No. 9) reach Rodrigues (No. 17) at the side of the net, where Rodrigues habitually anchored himself during Boston’s offensive-zone setups.
Feb. 6, 2015 — 5-2 over UMass Lowell, Rodrigues scores hat trick
Rodrigues was able to rack up points for Boston was because he tended to fling pucks on net whenever possible— and senior year, he often was able to aim toward Eichel and trust that he would give the disc an oft-needed final push. Below, Rodrigues’ well-aimed shot from the point connected with Eichel’s mid-air deflection in front of the net.
Jan. 24, 2015 — 2-1 OT win over Vermont, Rodrigues sets up Eichel’s winner
During this campaign, Rodrigues demonstrated a helpful awareness of where open players were on the ice. Below, watch Rodrigues (left side) fling a hard pass all the way to other side of the rink, where Eichel had an empty swathe of ice stretching ahead of him.
March 21, 2015 — 5-3 win over UMass Lowell, Hockey East title
Rodrigues and Eichel never spent much time together in Rodrigues’ post-college tenure with the Buffalo Sabres: from 2016-17 to 2018-19, Rodrigues shared the ice with the Sabres captain for under 4% of his skating time, according to Natural Stat Trick.
But before the NHL, Eichel’s assists and finishes in Boston helped Rodrigues prepare for the role he’s playing on the injury-riddled Penguins at the start of 2021-22.
Today, we still see the qualities that allowed Rodrigues to rack up points in college. He racks up shots on goal (through seven games, he trailed only Jason Zucker for the team lead with 22 shots) and he’s still willing to crash the blue paint or post up alongside the goal.
But those opportunities only consistently turn into goals when a finisher like Eichel can complete the play, and that is one thing that the Penguins lacked in October 2021.