Photo by Brian Murphy for The Sports Capitol

With Backstrom hurt, Eller raises his game


TAMPA, Fla. — It is the role Capitals center Lars Eller always imagined for himself.

In St. Louis in 2009-10, he was a rookie just trying to find his way. In Montreal for six years, he struggled to live up to expectations as coaches moved him up and down the lineup. There was never a defined role and it left Eller frustrated and even resentful.

Now in his second season with the Capitals, Eller delivered a year to remember. He produced a career-high 38 points (18 goals, 20 assists) played a capable two-way game and signed a contract extension in February.

In the Stanley Cup playoffs, Eller has four goals, including a power-play goal Friday in Game 1 of the Eastern Conference final against the Tampa Bay Lightning. Washington won 4-2 and took a 1-0 lead in the best-of-seven series.

“There was a lot of things that fell into place for me,” Eller said. “Being the second year here and just being more comfortable with the systems and with my teammates. It took time to adapt that first year. But this second year I just kind of hit the ground running more and I had a bit of an increased role because we lost some guys in the offseason. Got to play a bit more on the power play. I had good wingers around me. I just felt good.”

That Eller was on the top power-play unit at all shows how impressive a win it really was Friday for the Capitals, who were without center Nicklas Backstrom (right hand injury) for the second game in a row. Those are big, big shoes to fill on the second line. Eller has proved up to the task in Game 6 of the second round against the Pittsburgh Penguins and Game 1 against the Lightning. He led all Washington forwards in Ice time Friday at 20:35. That was more even than top-line center Evgeny Kuznetsov (16:52).

[Eller] kind of falls in the shadow of our other two centermen who are world-class players,” Caps winger T.J. Oshie said. “But Lars has been a very big part of our team’s success this year. He comes to work every single day. He’s a pro.”

Indeed, Kuznetsov and Backstrom are two of the NHL’s best. Eller insists he’s been able to learn from both the past two years and it’s improved his game – even if he doesn’t directly play on the same line with them. Trotz noted that Eller has “way more deception in his game” than he did before joining Washington via trade from Montreal in the summer of 2016. That’s in large part from simply watching the two men ahead of him at center.   

“Not a lot of pressure to always produce, but being really good two-way player in that third hole,” Barry Trotz said. “And [Eller] has been able to produce being in that situation and has killed penalties for us, he’s been on the power play. All the things that I think he’s capable of doing and he’s always wanted to do. But I don’t think he’s had the pressure to be the headliner, if you will. It’s a different animal being the headliner sometimes because you’re expected to produce and you’re judged on your production.”

That wasn’t the case with the Canadiens, where Eller shifted from center to wing and up and down the lineup. He had a strong postseason in 2014 when Montreal made the Eastern Conference final (five goals, eight assists). But it just seemed like he could never grab a defined role. He wasn’t viewed as a top-six center and so the Canadiens never seemed sure of what to do with him. In 2016, they traded Eller to Washington for a second-round draft pick. Eller said Saturday that he bounced around a lot there – “and I mean a LOT.”

Now, he’s playing major minutes on a championship contender, which is really all he’s ever wanted. Finally, Lars Eller has a home.

“That’s the position you want to be in as a player,” Eller said “You want to play as much as possible. I embrace that. That’s where I want to be. That’s great. When it’s the playoffs you want to be out there as much as possible.”

Brian McNally is a senior staff writer and co-founder of The Sports Capitol. He is also an award-winning multi-media journalist, who has covered the Redskins, Capitals and Nationals for the Washington Examiner, Washington Times and 106.7 The Fan and major events like the Super Bowl, NCAA basketball tournament, Stanley Cup playoffs, NBA playoffs, NFL Combine and NFL Draft.

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