Evan Rodrigues TONIGHT bug

EDMONTON -- Evan Rodrigues is laughing.

“Uh-uh,” he says. “Uh-uh, nice try. No chance.”

The Florida Panthers forward is in the dressing room at Baptist Health IcePlex, the team’s practice facility, and he is discussing the long and winding path he has taken to arrive here. After going undrafted, Rodrigues has played for the Buffalo Sabres, Pittsburgh Penguins and Colorado Avalanche before arriving in Florida this season.

And in doing so, he has been a teammate of some of the game’s top players, with Jack Eichel in Buffalo and Sidney Crosby in Pittsburgh and Nathan MacKinnon in Colorado and, now, Aleksander Barkov in Florida.

He is asked what he has taken from the centers, learned from them in his time around them.

“Honestly, the work habits. The competitiveness,” he said. “All these guys hate to lose. Like, they hate to lose. They may show it in different ways, some may be more -- the word 'theatrical' comes to my mind -- maybe more vocal about it. But down deep when you know ... they’re usually the most angry guy, whether they hold it in or whether they express it, usually the most angry guy in the room.

“I think that drive, the hating to lose, the wanting to be great, really drives them. I think it’s definitely a big quality to have in an elite player.”

So who is the most theatrical? It’s not Barkov, is it?

This is where Rodrigues starts laughing. This is where he clams up.

“That’s all I’ll give you,” he says. “It’s not him. That’s all I’ll give you.”

Rodrigues is taking a star turn himself in the Stanley Cup Final. He is leading the best-of-7 series with three goals in two games on home ice to help the Panthers take a 2-0 lead. He scored once in a 3-0 win in Game 1 and twice, including the game-winning goal, in a 4-1 triumph in Game 2. The series resumes with Game 3 at Rogers Place in Edmonton on Thursday (8 p.m. ET; CBC, TVAS, SN, ESPN+, ABC).

NHL Tonight on Rodrigues' impact in Stanley Cup Final

Rodrigues, who had 39 points (12 goals, 27 assists) in 80 games this season, has 11 points (six goals, five assists) in 19 games during the postseason, tied with defenseman Gustav Forsling for seventh on Florida.

The Panthers are led by Barkov, tied with forward Matthew Tkachuk for the team lead with 19 points (six goals, 13 assists) in 19 games.

And Barkov, arguably the best two-way forward in the game right now, fits in perfectly with all those other superstars Rodrigues has gotten to know.

The Panthers captain left during Game 2 after taking a high hit from Oilers center Leon Draisaitl, and Florida coach Paul Maurice would not confirm whether Barkov would play Thursday.

“I think it’s someone to follow,” Rodrigues said. “The common theme that all those guys have is they’re usually the hardest workers in the room. And usually one of the most competitive guys on the ice, too. So it’s someone to follow. They don’t always need to be the most vocal person in the room because you lose a couple games and you go to practice and they kind of are turned on, being like let’s go, and you have no choice but to keep up.”

That is Barkov.

“I think he does a really good job of that,” Rodrigues said. “His off-ice habits are some of the best I’ve seen and so even the little things in the gym or stuff like that, just talks to the complete person and the complete player that he is.”

For once, Rodrigues can settle in and learn. The 30-year-old signed his first contract longer than two years when he came to the Panthers before this season, inking a four-year contract. It means he can settle in, knowing he and his family have some stability in South Florida. And the fit has been seamless.

“It’s been awesome,” Rodrigues said. “It was such a breeze, so welcoming the day I got here. Coming to a team that had success last year making it all the way (to the Cup Final, where they lost in five games to the Vegas Golden Knights). A lot of familiar faces. There wasn’t a lot of turnover, so they were all comfortable with each other and it made it easy for me to just come in and fit right in. My family loves it here and I love it here.

“The team’s having success, so that always makes it easier. And I got off to a good start too, which helps at the beginning of the year. So the transition was probably the easiest I’ve had going to a new team.”

It has worked for each side, with Rodrigues being able to play up and down to the lineup, to do anything and everything Florida needs him to do.

“His game has, I like to think, has grown and changed,” Maurice said. “But now what we’ve been able to find is versatility with him.”

And now, Rodrigues -- he hopes -- won’t be jumping from team to team, from star to star. But he values the experiences he has had, the teammates he has known and learned from, the ways he has seen to be great.

“All of them, they’re not the loudest guys in the room, but they all know when to speak up and it’s almost like they pick their spots,” Rodrigues said. “They don’t have to be yelling or motivating all the time, but when they do speak up, it’s almost like a shock to you. You get quiet and you’re like, ok, we’ve got to listen.

“I think they all have that in common. Obviously, all different people, but that extent of hardest working guys, usually most competitive guys and don’t speak all the time. But when they do, you’re listening.”

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