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'Super smart' Rodrigues nets 2 as Panthers roll

Written by 
Published in Breaking News
Monday, 10 June 2024 23:21

SUNRISE, Fla. -- After two games in the Stanley Cup Final, both Florida Panthers forward Evan Rodrigues and defenseman Niko Mikkola have scored more goals than Edmonton Oilers stars Connor McDavid, Leon Draisaitl, Ryan Nugent-Hopkins and Zach Hyman -- combined.

The Panthers took a 2-0 lead in the series on Monday night with a 4-1 win over the Oilers that was powered by two unsung members of their supporting cast. Rodrigues scored twice, giving him three goals in the Final. Mikkola scored a critical goal to tie the score in the second period for only the second playoff goal of his career.

"It's special. You try to embrace it, try to stay in the moment. It's two big wins for our team. And I think we've already turned the page and we're getting ready for Game 3," Rodrigues said.

Florida coach Paul Maurice watched another brilliant defensive effort from his team by not allowing anything against the heralded Edmonton power play, not yielding a single high-danger shot attempt at 5-on-5, keeping Edmonton's stars without a goal and relying on goalie Sergei Bobrovsky (18 saves) to be the last line of defense.

But when Maurice needed goals, Rodrigues and Mikkola provided them.

"We play tight games. We've always played tight, hard games. We don't necessarily score easily. That's not a function of skill or talent," the coach said.

Rodrigues, 30, is a nine-year NHL veteran who signed a four-year, $12 million deal with the Panthers as a free agent last summer. An analytics darling during his career with the Buffalo Sabres, Pittsburgh Penguins and Colorado Avalanche, he had 12 goals and 27 assists in 80 games for the Panthers this season.

His goal in Game 1 was a one-timer past netminder Stuart Skinner, set up by a pass from behind the net by center Sam Bennett, that built a 2-0 lead for the Panthers.

Game 2 started with Rodrigues delivering a punishing hit on the forecheck against Oilers defenseman Darnell Nurse, who immediately grabbed his side in discomfort just four shifts into the game. Nurse would return in the second period, but he had only three shifts for the rest of the night.

Rodrigues' first goal in Game 2 came at 3:11 of the third period to snap a 1-1 tie -- and it was a score that might have been linked to Nurse's injury.

Edmonton defenseman Evan Bouchard played 30:40 in Game 2 because Nurse was hurt. The typically steady defenseman made a glaring mistake, however, attempting to clear the puck from the Edmonton zone only to have it land directly on the stick blade of Rodrigues.

"I got in on the forecheck. Tried to make a play. Almost got myself in a little bit of a pickle trying to look to make a play versus moving my feet," Rodrigues said. "Then the puck came back to me, and I wasn't making that mistake again. So, I just kind of fired it on net, and it went through a couple legs. Obviously, really happy to see it go in."

His second goal came on the power play at 12:26 of the third period. Bouchard again was victimized, this time by an Anton Lundell pass to Rodrigues, who tipped the puck past Skinner for a critical insurance goal.

That ended a streak of 34 straight successful penalty kills for the Oilers, tied with the 2001 St. Louis Blues for the third-longest such streak in Stanley Cup playoffs history.

Rodrigues became the first player in Panthers history with a multiple-goal game in the Stanley Cup Final. His three goals in the Final equals his total through the first three rounds this year.

His performance earned Rodrigues time on the Panthers' top line with Aleksander Barkov and Sam Reinhart, as winger Carter Verhaeghe "kind of needs to change your address every once in a while," Maurice said.

Rodrigues also received accolades from his teammates.

"So good, so happy for him. Proud of him. He reads the game so well. He's a super smart player, and I'm really happy to see him get rewarded right now," winger Matthew Tkachuk said.

Forward Kyle Okposo offered his take.

"I think he's a bit of a chameleon," he said of Rodrigues. "I think 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."

As for Mikkola, his game-tying goal was quite an adventure.

The 6-foot-4 defenseman had the puck in his own zone with Edmonton's Evander Kane bearing down on him. Mikkola spun around and flung the puck -- but directly at his own goaltender, Bobrovsky, who alertly knocked it away. Mikkola shook his head to acknowledge the blunder then skated up the ice.

"I tried to do defenseman-to-defenseman pass. Bobby was awake, which was good for us," said Mikkola, drawing laugher after the game. "And the rest was nice."

Moments later, Lundell stickhandled in the Oilers' zone and dropped a pass to a trailing Mikkola, who blasted a one-timer past Skinner to tie the score 1-1.

"Even if we were down one goal, everybody was calm and trusting the process," Mikkola said. "I was a little lucky. Got the one through."

Mikkola, 28, was another free agent coup for general manager Bill Zito after signing a three-year, $7.5 million deal. Almost a year later, he is a major reason the Panthers are up 2-0 in the Stanley Cup Final.

Game 3 is set for Thursday in Edmonton.

Since the Stanley Cup Final first went to a seven-game format in 1939, only five teams have come back to win the Cup after losing the first two contests.

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