If the Pittsburgh Penguins were going to remain serious Stanley Cup contenders this season they were (and still are) going to need a few things to go right.
They need the goaltending to be there and for Tristan Jarry to bounce back from his 2020-21 playoff performance. So far the goaltending has been great, with Jarry playing the best hockey of his career.
They need their core superstars to still play at a high level. They have not always had them in the lineup, but when they have been, Sidney Crosby, Jake Guentzel, and Kris Letang have still been really good. Evgeni Malkin is getting close to returning.
They also need some surprising performances from some unexpected players to help round out the depth. Think it is fair to say that Danton Heinen and Brock McGinn have probably exceeded expectations to help check that box. Nobody, though, has been a bigger positive surprise than Evan Rodrigues who continued his career year on Tuesday night with three more points, scoring a goal and adding two more assists in the Penguins’ 5-2 win over the Montreal Canadiens.
It really is a stunning and surprising performance.
With his three points on Tuesday, Rodrigues now has nine goals and 22 points in 28 games this season, and is second on the team in both categories. He has already matched his previous career high in goals and is rapidly closing in on his career high in points.
What stands out the most about his production is there is nothing about it that seems to be a fluke.
He is not scoring goals due to an outrageously high shooting percentage, as tends to happen with some random career years. His shooting percentage is actually right in line with his normal career mark and is under 10 percent for the season. Most of his increase in goal scoring comes down to an increase in shot volume, which has been driven by more ice time and a different role where he has had an opportunity to play more on top power play unit, on the top line, and in expanded minutes. He already has 12 games this season with at least four shots on goal, including six games with at least five shots on goal. That includes a pair of seven shots on goal games, including a 12-shot effort in one of them. He is just putting pucks on the net from everywhere. He has only had two games all season where he did not record a single shot on goal.
His possession numbers are also off the charts and among the best on the team, with the Penguins controlling more than 60 percent of the shot attempts during 5-on-5 play with him on the ice.
No matter what role the Penguins put him in, he is excelling. When they needed him to play top-line center minutes? He produced. Put him on the wing on the top line next to Sidney Crosby and Jake Guentzel (or Kasperi Kapanen)? He produces. Put him at center between Jason Zucker and Kapanen? Line dominated. Put him on the wing in a bottom-six role? The production is there.
Not only does he pass the production and analytics test, but he passes the eye test as well. He just looks like a different player this season. The confidence, the shot, the way he always seems to be at the center of something productive and positive when he is on the ice.
He has scored some goals this season on absolute rockets of shots. That power play goal he scored on Tuesday night was Ovechkin-like, coming from the top of the circle and being an absolutely perfectly placed one-timer slap shot that just picked the top corner behind Canadiens goalie Jake Allen. You can tell when he has the puck that he is playing with an outrageous level of confidence, seemingly willing to take on anybody and everybody one-on-one and having a tendency to beat them to make something happen.
When the Penguins brought Rodrigues back I was not sure what to expect. He was never a bad player, but he also never looked like a difference maker. The hope was that he could solidify the bottom-six and play a useful role there. Instead, he has played like a legitimate top-six player for more than a quarter of the season and has been one of the most productive players on a team that is quickly starting to let people know it is better than the preseason expectations.
Not sure how sustainable this level of production is going to be all season, but the Penguins will certainly take this level of play right now.