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‘Chameleon’ Evan Rodrigues sparks Panthers’ comeback to take 2-0 lead in Cup Final

For more than two periods in Game 2 of the 2024 Stanley Cup Final, Evan Rodrigues, Sam Bennett and Matthew Tkachuk pummeled the Edmonton Oilers, and yet the Florida Panthers had nothing to show for it, tied into the third period Monday in Sunrise.

The third period started with a new look.

Rodrigues moved up to the top line to play next to Aleksander Barkov and Sam Reinhart, an attempt to break through and take a commanding 2-0 series lead. The ability for coach Paul Maurice to make such a move is the sort of luxury Rodrigues gives the Panthers — a “chameleon,” Kyle Okposo called the him — and the versatile forward did what he does better than just about anyone else in the NHL to send Florida to a 4-1 win.

With his new linemates, Rodrigues scored a game-winning goal 3:11 into the third period, and the Panthers protected their home-ice advantage with a second straight win at Amerant Bank Arena.

“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.”

Less than 10 minutes later, Rodrigues scored again for his third goal of the series, while playing with a new group of linemates, on a power play to bury the Oilers.

Florida had the flexibility to make one major addition in the offseason and immediately targeted Rodrigues because of the versatility he could bring to a Stanley Cup contender with an already-potent offense. Now two wins from their first Cup, Rodrigues is giving the Panthers exactly what they hoped for, on the biggest stage imaginable.

“Just a little switch in the third,” superstar right wing Matthew Tkachuk said. “That was the spark we needed.”

Sunrise, Florida, June 10, 2024 - Florida Panthers center Evan Rodrigues (17) skates away from teammates with a big smile on his face after scoring in the third period to make the score 2-1 in favor of the Florida Panthers.
Sunrise, Florida, June 10, 2024 - Florida Panthers center Evan Rodrigues (17) skates away from teammates with a big smile on his face after scoring in the third period to make the score 2-1 in favor of the Florida Panthers.

Florida did not have much room to maneuver in the offseason after falling just short of their first championship last season. Bill Zito had to rebuild the Panthers’ defense and replenish their depth, and do it with only about $10 million in cap space. The general manager had room to make one big move and chose Rodrigues as his guy.

On the first day of free agency, the Panthers traded Anthony Duclair, a fan favorite and frequent top-line winger, to the Sharks to create just a little bit more room to operate. On the second day, Florida inked Rodrigues to a four-year, $12 million deal. Rodrigues, 30, immediately became the Panther with the third-most time left on his contract, behind only Barkov and Tkachuk.

Florida knew it could plug Rodrigues into the top line and tried him out next to Barkov early in the year. The line was good, but Maurice had one criticism.

“At times, I thought he deferred ... and it’s understandable. You’re a new player coming to an organization that is skilled, can make plays,” the coach said. “[He] didn’t need to do that.”

Sunrise, Florida, June 10, 2024 - Florida Panthers center Evan Rodrigues (17) who scored to goals in the game gives his stick to a fan after the game. The Florida Panthers defeated the Edmonton Oilers 4-1 in game 2 of the Stanley Cup Final to lead the series 2 -0. The series now moves to Edmonton .
Sunrise, Florida, June 10, 2024 - Florida Panthers center Evan Rodrigues (17) who scored to goals in the game gives his stick to a fan after the game. The Florida Panthers defeated the Edmonton Oilers 4-1 in game 2 of the Stanley Cup Final to lead the series 2 -0. The series now moves to Edmonton .

In the Cup Final, he hasn’t. The 30-year-old Canadian has shifted between complementary role player and individual creator and now leads the Cup Final with three goals through two games.

In Game 1, he scored with hustle, racing down the ice behind Bennett and scoring after the center made a spectacular play to beat Edmonton down the ice and feed a pass backward from behind the net. Rodrigues’ first goal in Game 2 was all his own doing after a bad pass somehow found its way back to him because of a costly turnover by Oilers defenseman Evan Bouchard. That let him rifle the go-ahead goal past Edmonton goaltender Stuart Skinner with 16:49 left. His second goal Monday came right as a power play was about to expire as he drove to the net and finished off a pass from center Anton Lundell to snap Edmonton’s streak of 34 consecutive successful penalty kills.

After two games of the Final, the Oilers have only one goal and their star forward trio of Connor McDavid, Leon Draisaitl and Zach Hyman has none. Rodrigues has three by himself and Florida could win its first title as soon as Game 4 on Saturday in Edmonton.

“He has a unique confidence about him,” Okposo said. “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 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’s why he’s had so much success everywhere he’s gone.”