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Like any Stanley Cup champion’s playoff run, the Capitals’ postseason was punctuated by outstanding performances by both star players and unsung heroes alike. Alex Ovechkin was himeself, potting huge goals and blocking shots, too. Evgeny Kuznetsov blossomed on the national stage, leading all players in postseason points and sending Pittsburgh packing with a Game 6 overtime winner. Braden Holtby delivered THE SAVE, and stood tall through 16 victories. Lesser-known players came up big, as well. Michal Kempny helped anchor a defense that struggled throughout the regular season. Devante Smith-Pelly scored timely goals, and Chandler Stephenson cracked the lineup to provide speed and penalty killing.
Perhaps no unsung hero stood taller than third-line center Lars Eller. Almost every hero’s epic journey is filled with bumps in the road. For Eller, the Stanley Cup-clinching goal-scorer, this was certainly the case. No Capital, save maybe Tom Wilson, experienced the personal highs and lows of the Stanley Cup playoffs more than Eller. From important goals to costly penalties, from increased responsibilities to missed opportunities, Eller’s postseason was an adventure.
With Washington having dropped the first two games of their first round series against Columbus, the team could ill afford to stumble in its first road game of the series. Fortunately for the Caps, Eller was in the right spot at the right time at the 9:00 mark of the second overtime period. Brett Connolly fired a shot that pinballed around the crease, finally bouncing off Eller and into the back of the net. Instead of falling into a 3-0 series deficit, the Capitals secured the first of four straight wins to eliminate the Blue Jackets.
Against Pittsburgh in Round 2, Eller logged a goal and three assists, but more importantly, stepped up when Nicklas Backstrom was unable to play in Game 6. With Eller’s seamless transition to the second-line, the Caps finished the Penguins’ season and established a 2-0 series lead against Tampa Bay in the Eastern Conference Final. That’s when things got hairy for Eller and the Caps.
In Game 3 of the Eastern Conference Final, Eller took three penalties. Tampa Bay’s Nikita Kucherov cashed in on the first of these penalties, scoring a power play goal that established a two-goal lead and got Tampa rolling on a three-goal second period from which the Caps could not recover. In Game 4, Eller spent four more minutes in the box. The Lightning scored the eventual game-winning goal seconds after the second penalty expired. The Caps had squandered a 2-0 series lead to the conference’s top seed. Fans worried that all the gloomy playoff history was creeping back into the picture. Eller’s five minors in the two home losses loomed large. The “Great Dane” suddenly found himself in the doghouse. Some fans called for him to be a healthy scratch in Game 5. Head Coach Barry Trotz, in his post-game press conference, said of the five penalties, “It’s way too many. It’s on Lars and no one else.” Of course in the same press conference, Trotz mentioned how resilient Washington has been all season. And resilient the Caps were, shutting out Tampa in Games 6 and 7. Eller proved resilient, too, taking only one more minor penalty in the Caps’ final eight games.
In the final minute of Game 1 of the Stanley Cup Final against the Vegas Golden Knights, Eller had the chance tie the game on a lay-up in front of the goal, but couldn’t get a stick on the cross-crease pass. Yes, the defenseman tied up his stick just enough, but judging from Eller’s facial expression on the bench, it was clear he lamented the missed opportunity. Maybe as a pick-up, or maybe as pure coincidence, Eller was selected to skate the traditional road practice “hot lap” before Game 2. Eller skated a blistering lap, and neither he, nor the Caps looked back. In Game 2, Eller scored or assisted on all three goals in a 3-2 victory. He admirably moved up to center the second-line again after Kuznetsov was injured. Then, eight days later, with Washington facing its last postseason demon, a 3-1 series lead, Eller scored the most important goal in Washington Capitals history. When the puck squirted through Marc-Andre Fleury’s pads, Eller would not be denied in the crease this time. He neatly tucked home the eventual Cup winner.
His game-winning goal in the Caps’ first win of the postseason and his Cup-winning goal in Vegas were the perfect bookends to Washington’s storybook playoff run. Over the course of two exciting months, en route to becoming the first native of Denmark to win the Stanley Cup, Eller experienced the lows of being a possible playoff scapegoat and felt the high of scoring the G.O.A.T (Goal of All-Time) in Caps history.
By Bryan Hailey