Lars Eller emerging as unexpected playoff star for Capitals

Getty
6 Comments

This is not the start to the Eastern Conference Final that anybody expected when the series began.

The Washington Capitals now seem to be in complete control of the series and will take a 2-0 lead back home to Washington on Tuesday night after routing the Tampa Bay Lightning, 6-2, on Sunday night.

In the two games the Capitals have completely dictated the pace and style of the game, outscoring the the Lightning by a 10-4 margin so far. They have been especially dominant during 5-on-5 play, with the Lightning’s only two goals on Sunday coming on the power play after they capitalized on a couple of breaks in the first period.

On Sunday night it was a lot of the usual suspects for the Capitals doing the damage.

Alex Ovechkin scored his 10th goal of the playoffs.

Evgeny Kuznetsov had three points, including a buzzer-beating power play goal late in the second period to help take over the game.

Braden Holtby continued to be great in net and ran his record to 10-2 in these playoffs since replacing Philipp Grubauer in the first-round.

But a big part of what makes the Capitals’ lead in this series so impressive is they have done it without the services of Nicklas Backstrom as he sat out his third consecutive game with a hand injury. The Capitals have won all three of those games, and also came-from-behind in the third period of the game he was injured in.

A big reason for that success has been the emergence of Lars Eller as he has slid into Backstrom’s spot on the second line and been nothing short of brilliant for the Capitals.

[PHT’s Three Stars: Eller leads the way for Capitals]

He scored another goal on Sunday night, breaking a 2-2 tie with a minute to play in the third period, to give him his fifth goal of the playoffs. He added two assists after that to finish with three points and now has six points in the past four games. His three-point game on Sunday was also his second of the postseason as he now sits with 12 total points (five goals, seven assists) in the Capitals’ first 14 playoff games.

This is probably an unexpected development for the Capitals.

It’s not that Eller hasn’t been a good player for them. He has been. He has been a quality depth player in the NHL for a few years now, can play a bit of a two-way game, and can chip in 25-30 points in any given season. All of that was enough to get him a five-year contract extension during the season, a season in which he set career highs in goals (18) and total points (38) for the Capitals.

But for him to emerge as a difference-maker offensively in these playoffs has been a decisive development for the Capitals, especially since they spent so much of the playoffs without several of their top forwards (Andre Burakovsky missed a large chunk of the playoffs, Tom Wilson missed three games due to a suspension, Backstrom has not played since early in the third period of Game 5 of the second-round series against the Pittsburgh Penguins).

Teams that end up winning the Stanley Cup always need some unexpected performances like this. They still need the superstars to make an impact and score, but those players are not going to score every single night. Sometimes it comes down the depth players finding a way to make an impact. The Capitals’ big problem in recent playoff runs has been that they would get goals and offense from Ovechkin, but would always have something else fall apart, whether it was their own goaltending or the depth scoring. Now they are getting all of it.

The Capitals now return home with a chance to actually clinch the series if they can take Games 3 and 4 on Tuesday and Thursday of this week. Is it likely to happen that way? No, probably not likely. Despite the way they have played the first two games the Lightning were still the top-seed in the Eastern Conference for a reason and they still have some players that can change a game or a series at any moment. But that possibility is on the table, and the Capitals are now just two wins away from their first trip to the Stanley Cup Final since 1998.

MORE:
• Conference Finals schedule, TV info
• PHT 2018 Conference Finals Roundtable
• PHT predicts NHL’s Conference Finals
• NBC’s Stanley Cup Playoff Hub

Adam Gretz is a writer for Pro Hockey Talk on NBC Sports. Drop him a line at phtblog@nbcsports.com or follow him on Twitter @AGretz.