Photo: Bruce Bennett/Getty Images
The Washington Capitals headed into Game 6 in Pittsburgh with the difficult task of trying to close-out a series without a significant playmaker in the lineup. Despite the challenge they closed the door on the defending Stanley Cup champions and went up 2-0 in the Eastern Conference Finals with two big road wins at Tampa Bay. Part of the reason for that success was Lars Eller excelling in the role of centering the second line.
Eller had a successful regular season that saw him score a career-high 20 goals and 38 points, predominantly centering the third line. Back in early February, the Capitals signed him to a contract extension for five years and $17.5 million.
After the Capitals won Game 5 of their second round series against the Pittsburgh Penguins, they learned that Nicklas Backstrom suffered an upper-body right-hand injury. Coach Barry Trotz moved Eller up from the third line to the second line, giving the “Great Dane” some big shoes to fill.
Eller has filled in nicely thus far, especially in the first two games of the Eastern Conference Finals in Tampa, registering two goals and two assists for four points. Both Eller goals were far from pretty, which is what is needed to succeed in the playoffs. In Game 1, Eller’s goal came on a rebound off of Lightning goaltender Andrei Vasilevskiy’s left blocker pad.
In Game 2 late in the second period, Jakub Vrana flung a shot towards the net and Eller was in the right place at the right time to knock it in.
59 seconds later while the Caps were on the power play, Eller created havoc in front of the net, allowing a shot by Evgeny Kuznetsov to trickle through right before the horn sounded for the second intermission. In the third period, with the Capitals already in the driver’s seat with a 5-2 lead, Eller found Brett Connolly on this great saucer pass to put the Capitals ahead 6-2.
It was a three-point night for “the tiger” and Trotz commended the way he’s stepped up during his postgame press conference.
“He’s got all the qualities of a playoff type of player. He’s big, he’s strong, he’s got some experience, he’s very competitive, he’s got a good skill level and he’s playing that way. He’s playing to his ability right now. He’s one of the guys that’s stepped up in a major way for us and I just think that he’s a good hockey player,” said Trotz.
Backstrom has continued to make progress from his upper-body injury and joined his teammates at morning skate prior to Game 2. With the Capitals up 2-0 in the series heading back to DC, there isn’t a rush to getting Backstrom back into game action. If he isn’t 100%, Eller will look to continue the load on the second line.
“He maybe doesn’t get the recognition for a center when you’ve got Kuzy and Backy; Beags and Lars take a back seat to the front two headliners but we know how valuable he is,” Trotz said. “The guys in the room know how valuable he is. Tonight we got contributions from all four lines. There’s some games where your big top lines carry you and other nights where you get contributions through every line. Today we did.”
By Michael Marzzacco