LAS VEGAS – When Nicklas Backstrom came out to meet the media after Game 2 of the Stanley Cup final, he was sporting Lars Eller’s hoodie with the No. 20 emblazoned on the left shoulder. Good call by him.
“He was so hot today, so I wanted some power from him,” Backstrom said. “No, I couldn’t find mine so I grabbed his. He’s sitting next to me.”
Depending on how badly Evgeny Kuznetsov’s hand/wrist is injured after leaving Game 2, the seatmates might just emerge as the most important players in this series. And if Eller’s performance in Game 2 is any measuring stick, he’s up to trying to fill the huge chasm that would be created without Kuznetsov. As he can sometimes be, Eller was the best player on either team in Game 2, and he has been enjoying something of a renaissance in this year’s playoffs. Just as he filled in when Backstrom missed Game 7 of the second-round series and the first three games of the Eastern Conference final with a hand injury, Eller is displaying a penchant for playing his best hockey at the most crucial times.
“The more I’m out there, the better I feel with the puck,” Eller said. “In the Stanley Cup final you want to be on the ice, not on the bench. I enjoy every single moment of it. I don’t know if Kuzy’s going to play next game or not, but if he isn’t, I’m going to be ready, we’re going to be ready.”
If Kuznetsov can’t play, it will mean that the Capitals will have been without their best set-up man (Backstrom), the highest scorer in the playoffs (Kuznetsov) and their most physical player (Tom Wilson) for extended periods through these playoffs. But you get the sense that this team is far better mentally equipped to deal with challenges in the playoffs than it ever has been in the past. That’s part of the reason why they’re here and three wins away from winning the franchise’s first Stanley Cup.
“Absolutely, absolutely,” said Capitals coach Barry Trotz when asked whether this particular group is more resilient. “I think this group has learned so much. I don’t think there are too many people out here or in the hockey world who thought that when we lost Backstrom in the Pittsburgh series that you were going to see the Washington Capitals get past that round. This group has had everything thrown at them and they just say, ‘You know what? We’re just going to push on.’ ”
When Eller plays like he has of late, it kind of makes you wonder why he can’t do it all the time. His skill level is obviously very high and his hockey smarts are off the charts. He’s a responsible player, he’s big, he skates really well and is a good defensive player and penalty-killer. But the biggest knock against the 29-year-old is, and always has been, his consistency. It’s probably one of the prime reasons why his average salary for the next five years will be $3.5 million and not something in the neighborhood of $5 million.
Even though he was born in Denmark, Eller has proven to be something of a Swiss Army Knife for the Capitals. He can be plugged into almost any role they need and will do a good job. Case in point was when Kuznetsov went down and Eller moved into his spot on the second line between Jakub Vrana and T.J. Oshie. “It’s trending that way,” said Oshie of Eller’s penchant for playing better when he gets more responsibility. “I got to move over with him after Kuzy left and he just played outstanding. If I’m being honest, I didn’t play that great of a game, I don’t think, and Lars and ‘V’ carried me. It seems like he’s one of those guys who has a knack for the stage, for the extra responsibilities and he does a great job with it. I think some people have ways of digging down deeper and ways of being calm when the moment gets bigger. I’m not in his head and I can’t tell you exactly why that is, but I can tell you he gets his work done every day he comes to the rink and maybe he’s prepared for that when he gets that shot.”
Ovechkin referred to Eller as the Capitals’ “secret weapon” and among teammates he goes by the nickname of Tiger. According to Holtby, Eller earned the nickname last season during a team event, “and he was just The Tiger, there’s no other way to put it.”
Sure sounds like one of those things that has a pretty good story attached to it, but will probably stay in the vault. But if Eller can continue to play the way he did in Game 2 and the Capitals see this thing through to the end, this Tiger might just be as popular as the one in the golf world, at least in the D.C. area.