PITTSBURGH (AP) — Evan Rodrigues always had the tools. A sneaky good shot. Vision. Speed. The tricky part for the Pittsburgh Penguins forward has been putting it all together at the same time.
The missing ingredients turned out to be belief and a dash of swagger. Rodrigues is currently playing with copious amounts of both, the proof coming during a 5-2 win over Montreal on Tuesday night that pushed Pittsburgh’s winning streak to five games.
Rodrigues hammered home a one-timer from the left circle 6:45 into the second period for his ninth goal of the season, matching the career-high he posted in 2018-19 while playing for Buffalo. It took him 74 games to get to that total. This year, he reached it in just 28 games.
The injury-ravaged Penguins have needed all of them. Rodrigues spent most of his career in a complementary role but found himself thrust into the top-six early in the season with Sidney Crosby and others injured. The added responsibility has hardly been a burden. If anything, it gave Rodrigues the boost he needed.
“Playing center (at the start of the season) gave me a lot of puck touches,” said Rodrigues, who also had two assists. “The more plays you make, the more confidence you get.”
It was on display after Rodrigues’ power-play goal gave the Penguins a 2-0 lead they never threatened to give up. He sheathed his stick like a sword before being met by his teammates, Crosby among them.
“I think as far as the biggest improvement is he’s got a lot of confidence when he shoots it,” Crosby said. “That’s one thing that’s stood out. He’s got a great shot.”
And he hasn’t been afraid to take it. He’s averaging 3.3 shots per game this season, compared to his career average of less than two coming in.
“No matter what position we’ve put him in, he has thrived and that’s a credit to him,” Penguins coach Mike Sullivan said. “Opportunity is one thing and taking advantage of it another and that’s what E-Rod has done.”
Kasperi Kapanen, Mike Matheson, Brian Dumoulin, and Brian Boyle also scored for Pittsburgh. Tristan Jarry finished with 28 saves to improve to 8-1-1 in his last 10 starts.
Jarry’s spectacular play has helped the injury-ravaged Penguins — currently playing without top-six forwards Evgeni Malkin, Jake Guentzel, and Bryan Rust — stay afloat in the Metropolitan Division. Pittsburgh is 10-2-1 over its last 13 games following a sluggish start.
“We check really well,” said Crosby, whose two assists made him the 14th player in NHL history to have 400 career multi-point games. “We’ve got speed. When we play that way, we’re tough to play against. We don’t give up a lot.”
Jesse Ylonen scored the first goal of his career for Montreal. Jonathan Drouin added his fifth of the season and Jake Allen stopped 26 shots but couldn’t prevent the Canadiens from dropping their seventh straight.
A little over five months after reaching the Stanley Cup finals under a modified playoff format as a result of COVID-19, Montreal sits in last place in the Eastern Conference.
“There’s nothing you can say,” defenseman Jeff Petry said. “It’s frustrating. It’s the same things over and over. We’re not playing as a team. We’re not playing as a group.”
The Canadiens came out flying early, testing Jarry repeatedly in the opening minutes and hitting the post twice. The pressure, however, failed to produce a goal and Kapanen gave the Penguins the lead 11:08 into the first in a sequence that sums up where both teams are at as Christmas approaches.
Allen turned aside a shot by Letang from the point, but the rebound caromed off Rodrigues’ skate in the slot and floated in the air toward the net. Allen extended his glove to snag it, only to have Kapanen get to the puck first, bunting it over a surprised Allen for Kapanen’s seventh goal of the season and second since moving to the top line last week in place of the injured Guentzel.
The teams traded goals in the second, with Montreal pulling within 3-2 on a laser from Ylonen with 3 seconds left.
The momentum didn’t carry over into the third. Dumolin’s fluttering slapshot from the blue line beat Allen 28 seconds into the third and the Penguins were on their way to matching a season-high winning streak they set while ripping off five straight from Nov. 18-26.
Canadiens: Head home to host Philadelphia on Thursday.
Penguins: Welcome Buffalo on Friday. The Sabres won the first meeting between the teams 2-1 on Nov. 16.