LAS VEGAS — Nicklas Backstrom stood in front of his stall inside T-Mobile Arena after the Washington Capitals’ 3-2 victory in Game 2 wearing Lars Eller’s team-issued No. 20 top.
“He was so hot today so I wanted some power from him,” Backstrom joked before admitting he couldn’t find his and just grabbed Eller’s since they’re stall neighbors.
Eller was hot in Game 2 with a goal and two assists, continuing a trend where the Capitals lose a top center and the 29-year-old Dane steps in and admirably fills the role.
With a little more than five minutes to play in the first period and the Vegas Golden Knights holding a 1-0 lead, Evgeny Kuznetsov left the game following a hit from Brayden McNabb. Capitals head coach Barry Trotz had to tinker with his top two lines again, like he’d done when Backstrom was injured in the second round. Eller was handed another promotion and rose to the occasion.
No wonder Alex Ovechkin called him the Capitals’ “secret weapon.”
“Lars is not shy to take on a responsibility,” said Trotz. “He knows that he’s got to fill in big shoes, either Backy or Kuzy, in the playoffs and he knows that he’s got an opportunity. I think he relishes it. He takes that opportunity to showcase what he’s able to do and he knows that we’re relying on him. He’s one of the more popular guys in our room, for sure. He just elevates his game when we need it. That’s been Lars through the playoffs, but that’s been everybody.”
Eller, who earned the mysterious nickname of “Tiger” following a team-building event last season, was forced into the second-line center spot in the series against the Pittsburgh Penguins after Backstrom missed four games with a hand injury. With a new and bigger role, he contributed two goals and five points and helped Washington to three wins.
“The more I’m out there, the better I feel on the puck,” Eller said. “Better flow in my game. I knew from the Tampa series that I had really good chemistry with [Jakub] Vrana and [T.J.] Oshie, so it wasn’t a surprise for me when we did some good things when we were put back together. Just playing on instincts.”
The Capitals gave Eller a five-year, $17.5 million extension in February and he’s doing a good job of living up to it. Through 21 playoff games, he has career highs in goals (six) and points (16). Clearly a tougher assignment isn’t something that overwhelms him, as he’s seamlessly transitioned up and down the lineup when called upon.
“I think some people have ways of digging down deeper,” said Oshie. “I think some people have ways of staying calm when the moment gets bigger. I’m not in his head, I can’t tell you exactly why that is. I can tell you he gets his work done every day he comes to the rink. So maybe he’s prepared for that when he gets that shot.”
Trotz had no update on Kuznetsov and with two full off days before Game 3 Saturday in D.C., it might be a game-time decision if he’ll be back or if Eller will once again need to answer the call.
“Stanley Cup Final, you want to be on the ice not the bench,” Eller said. “I enjoy every single moment of it and it’s been a great atmosphere here. I can’t wait to go back to D.C. and see what the fans are going to bring.
“I don’t know if Kuzy’s going to play next or not, but if he isn’t I’m going to be ready, we’re going to be ready.”
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Sean Leahy is a writer for Pro Hockey Talk on NBC Sports. Drop him a line at email@example.com or follow him on Twitter @Sean_Leahy.