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Rodrigues excelling at center between Foligno, Gionta

Franson to return this weekend; Grant receives good news

by Jourdon LaBarber @jourdonlabarber / Sabres.com

Evan Rodrigues said at the outset of training camp that he truly believed he could play in Buffalo. An entire season spent in Rochester as a first-year pro in 2015-16, followed by two NHL games in which he scored a goal and an assist to end last season, had proven that to him. 

Now, in the midst of his third recall of his second season, Rodrigues might just be proving it to others, too.

The undrafted forward out of Boston University has played in four games since being recalled from Rochester on Feb. 11, culminating in a career high 15:47 of ice time in Buffalo's 2-0 win over Colorado on Thursday. He has two assists in that stretch.

What's more is that Rodrigues has been playing center after spending his college career and his rookie season on the wing. With depth at the position lacking in Rochester, coach Dan Lambert saw the ability to play the position in Rodrigues and put him their to begin the season.

It turned out that Lambert had some foresight. Four months later, Rodrigues is playing center at a high level on a line with Marcus Foligno and Brian Gionta.

"I don't want to say I'm surprised, but great intelligence, some good hockey smarts and sense on both sides of the puck, in particular defensively," Sabres coach Dan Bylsma said when asked what he's seen from Rodrigues during this stretch. "Positionally, when he gets the puck coming out of D-zone and puck retrievals, he's made real intelligent and smart plays."

Bylsma joked that he wanted to put Rodrigues in a No. 22 sweater when he first placed him on the line with Foligno and Gionta, alluding to the very successful trio that those wingers had formed with center Johan Larsson during the second half of last season and the first two months of this one. The line was broken up when Larsson went down with a dislocated elbow and wrist at the end of December.

What made that line effective was its simplicity. The trio would matchup with opponent's top lines and beat them simply by possessing the puck in the offensive zone, beginning often with a chip over the blue line followed by battles along the boards and down low, with each forward constantly supporting one another. 

With Rodrigues now in the middle, he's trying to bring that same element. He said Foligno and Gionta's comfort with one another helps with his confidence on the ice; he simply tries to make the smart play and find open space for them to get him the puck.

"I think that's what's helping us out a ton," Rodrigues said. "We're not trying to be too fancy. We're hitting the blue line, chipping pucks in if we don't have anything and if we have a chance to make a play I think we're making it. We're getting a lot of pucks to the net and we're getting some chances."

Rodrigues has contributed his fair share on the forecheck as well. His line was responsible for some of Buffalo's best shifts on Thursday, including one in the first period that saw Rodrigues twice bounce off defenders while maintaining puck control during a long offensive-zone stay in which he nearly set up Gionta for a goal at the net front and twice got the puck out high to create shots attempts for his defensemen. 

"Guys seem to go and try to hit him and he kind of bounces off and keeps going," Foligno said. "As a centerman, he tries to keep his momentum going up ice and he's been playing great for us."

Ask Bylsma about Rodrigues, and he quickly points to his play in the defensive zone. At the center position, Rodrigues is responsible for playing down low and executing clean breakouts, something he did well on Thursday even when under pressure. He's also done well to support his wingers in advancing the puck up through the neutral zone, 

Meanwhile, he's been working hard to improve on his faceoffs, working with well-established guys like Ryan O'Reilly and Derek Grant after recent practices. Bylsma used him in the faceoff circle in all situations on Thursday, and the team had him at 50 percent on the night.

"I think the intelligence that Evan has been able to bring to the line has made it a good, solid, defensive line with Marcus and with Brian there on the right side," Bylsma said. "One of the keys to us playing well defensively is not spending a lot of time in the defensive zone and being able to break the puck out and support the puck out of the zone and Evan's done that tremendously well."

"You can see it last year at camp and what not, that he had potential," Gionta added. "But he seems to have really taken off and feels comfortable out there with himself and knows that he belongs."

How long Rodrigues sticks with Foligno and Gionta remains to be seen. Zemgus Girgensons is expected to return from injury at some point after Buffalo's bye week, and he too has done well in the role of checking centerman. 

For the time being, Rodrigues is happy to continue to prove himself.

"I feel like I'm playing well," he said. "I'm having some fun and just enjoying the moment."

 

Friday's practice

Grant did not practice after leaving the game on Thursday with a shoulder injury in the first period, but Bylsma said that evaluations on him have been positive. Still, the coach said not to expect to see Grant in the lineup in either of Buffalo's games this weekend.

Video: Sabres in :90 (2/17/17)

Evander Kane and Dmitry Kulikov were both also absent from practice. Kane is still recovering from an illness despite playing on Thursday, while Kulikov sat out for a maintenance day. Both should be ready to play against St. Louis on Saturday afternoon.

In Kulikov's absence, Cody Franson stepped in and skated on a pair with Josh Gorges. It was Franson's second time skating with the team and third time skating overall since sustaining a foot injury that has cost him the last four games. He said afterward that he feels ready to return to the lineup on Saturday. 

"I'll have a meeting with him after practice here and we'll see how that goes," Bylsma said. "He's obviously had three good days of practice and that's a good thing. We should see him on the weekend here."

Girgensons (middle body) skated on his own again on Friday, but still has not been cleared for contact. William Carrier (knee) also skated prior to practice. 

Here's how the full lineup looked at practice:
56 Justin Bailey - 90 Ryan O'Reilly - 21 Kyle Okposo
26 Matt Moulson (filling in for Kane) - 15 Jack Eichel - 23 Sam Reinhart
82 Marcus Foligno - 71 Evan Rodrigues - 12 Brian Gionta
26 Matt Moulson - 44 Nicolas Deslauriers - 63 Tyler Ennis

29 Jake McCabe - 55 Rasmus Ristolainen
4 Josh Gorges - 6 Cody Franson
41 Justin Falk - 47 Zach Bogosian
38 Taylor Fedun

40 Robin Lehner
31 Anders Nilsson

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