On Wednesday night in Game 2 of the Stanley Cup Finals, the Washington Capitals already had adversity trailing 1-0 but then it got more challenging. Late in the first period the team lost top-line center Evgeny Kuznetsov when he left the game after a hit from Brayden McNabb. While it did leave a hole at the center position, Capitals coach Barry Trotz made it work.
He moved Nicklas Backstrom up from the second-line to the first-line. Lars Eller went from the third-line to the second-line.
Eller has stepped up in previous instances, from filling in at the second-line during Nicklas Backstrom’s injury to doing the honors of taking the hot lap. Late in the first period, Eller won the face-off battle and buried in a pass from Michal Kempny to tie the game and swing the momentum toward the Caps.
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“I think what you find is the depth at center ice,” Trotz told the media on Thursday during a conference call. “You know, Nick has gone out or Kuzy has been out, Lars has elevated his game and comes up in a more prominent role if you will.”
Eller has enjoyed the best season of his career posting a career-high 18 goals, 20 assists and 38 points. It was a season that earned him a five-year contract extension back in February. Had a deal not been given, Eller would’ve entered the summer as an unrestricted free agent.
In the postseason, Eller has 17 points (six goals, 11 assists). He’s come through at times when the Capitals desperately needed him. He scored an ugly goal in double-overtime back in Game 3 of the first round against the Columbus Blue Jackets. Had that never happened, the Capitals could’ve been on the ropes trailing the series 3-0.
“I think he embraces the challenge. He takes the moments very seriously that he has to step up and try to find a way to produce, and he has,” added Trotz. “He’s a veteran player who has good hockey sense and he’s strong on the puck and I think his game translates well in the playoffs.”
Chandler Stephenson slid into the third-line center role and Trotz offered praise for the rookie.
“Chandler’s obviously through the playoffs- he plays every position pretty well except defense or goal for us. He’s played right wing, left wing. He’s played center ice. He’s moved up to the first-line. He’s been on the second, third, and fourth-line.”
Stephenson has been versatile all playoffs and will do whatever’s asked of him. No matter what line he’s on, who he’s grouped with, he’ll adapt and adjust his game accordingly.
“He’s just, I use the term he’s a Swiss Army knife for our team. He’s able to, if he’s in more of a guiding line, he’ll play that grinding style. If he’s with the skill people, he’ll play that skill game,” Trotz said. “If he’s playing the win with someone who gets the puck to space, he’s going to use his speed. He’s very adaptable in this game. He’s sort of that guy the that can swing all over the place. Very, very valuable for us.”
While Kuznetsov’s status for Game 3 is still unknown, the depth at center and the “next man up” mentality should serve the Capitals well. The Caps look to go up 2-1 on the series in front of their fans on Saturday night.
By Michael Marzzacco