Eller’s re­cent play shows grow­ing com­fort with Cap­i­tals.

Eller’s re­cent play shows grow­ing com­fort with Cap­i­tals

The Washington Times Daily - - FRONT PAGE - BY TOMMY CHALK

When the Washington Cap­i­tals sent a 2017 and a 2018 sec­ond-round pick to the Montreal Cana­di­ens in ex­change for cen­ter Lars Eller at the 2016 NHL draft, the be­lief was the Cap­i­tals fi­nally ac­quired a bona fide third-line cen­ter, a role that had eluded them for the bet­ter part of the last sev­eral sea­sons.

Eller ini­tially strug­gled, record­ing just two goals and a sin­gle as­sist in his first 26 games with Washington. Cap­i­tals coach Barry Trotz even bumped Eller down to the fourth line, opt­ing to uti­lize Jay Bea­gle more as the team’s third line cen­ter.

In the last four or five games, the Cap­i­tals have seen a dif­fer­ent side of Eller. The point pro­duc­tion still isn’t ex­actly there, as he’s added just one as­sist in his last five games. How­ever, Eller is adding a sec­ond gear to his game — one that al­ready in­cludes de­fen­sively-re­spon­si­ble play — by cre­at­ing scor­ing chances and ap­ply­ing pres­sure in the of­fen­sive zone.

“What you see with Lars, he’s us­ing that big body, he’s be­ing very force­ful in sit­u­a­tions with the puck,” Trotz said. “And he’s get­ting some good op­por­tu­ni­ties. If he keeps trend­ing that way with that mind set, he could be a real

dif­fer­ence maker, es­pe­cially in that third line where you can get some real good match-ups.”

Eller is be­gin­ning to re­gain a sense of com­fort within his role with the team, some­thing he didn’t ini­tially have in his first few games. It was the sec­ond time in his NHL ca­reer Eller has had to pack his be­long­ings and nav­i­gate his way through a new locker room. Eller was traded fol­low­ing his brief rookie sea­son with the St. Louis Blues to the Cana­di­ens. As a player fa­mil­iar with join­ing a new team, Eller has had dif­fer­ent ex­pe­ri­ences when it comes to pick­ing up a new sys­tem.

This most re­cent move was a lit­tle more trou­ble­some than those in his past.

“Some­times [join­ing a new team] is [dif­fi­cult], some­times it’s not,” Eller said. “I think, in this case, it maybe took me a lit­tle while. But I think I’ve re­ally found my game here the last two weeks or so.”

Over the last five games at even­strength, five-on-five hockey, Eller has cre­ated eight scor­ing chances, 14.55 per­cent more than his av­er­age team­mate, ac­cord­ing to Cor­sica. He and his line­mates have also taken 60 to­tal shot at­tempts, 21 more than he and his line­mates have al­lowed, sug­gest­ing Eller and his line­mates greatly pos­sess the puck more than their op­po­nents.

“I’ve been get­ting more com­fort­able,” Eller said. “I’m fi­nally start­ing to cre­ate a lot of scor­ing chances like I should be. And it comes from just tak­ing my game to a new level, but it all started with mov­ing my feet and com­pet­ing. The rest fol­lows.”

Also help­ing Eller is fa­mil­iar­ity with his line­mates. Through­out the sea­son, Trotz has shuf­fled the wings along­side of Eller to try to put an of­fen­sive jolt into the line. Eller says he un­der­stands that line shuf­fling needs to be done in or­der to see what ex­actly works and what doesn’t, but he fi­nally ap­pears to have a player locked in as his line­mate in the rookie winger Jakub Vrana. Vrana, re­called from the Her­shey Bears on Nov. 30, has been a main­stay on Eller’s line over the last five games. The two are start­ing to de­velop a sense of fa­mil­iar­ity, es­pe­cially when it comes to on-ice com­mu­ni­ca­tion.

“Great two-way cen­ter­man, ob­vi­ously great in d-zone,” Vrana said of Eller. “We talk a lot when there’s a mis­take or any­thing hap­pen on the ice, we al­ways go through and talk about it. And ob­vi­ously it’s great that he can be two-way. He plays re­ally good of­fen­sively. He brings a lot of speed to the team.”

Eller has also played a role in Vrana’s early suc­cess. Eller says that, as long as he’s play­ing at his best, he can com­fort­ably play with any player, and he be­lieves he’s play­ing very well cen­ter­ing Vrana.

As a rookie just nine games in to his NHL ca­reer, Vrana has looked to­ward Eller for guid­ance on and off the ice. He also says that the two need to do some tweak­ing to im­prove even more, but they play sim­i­larly, and that helps.

“When­ever I need to ask some­thing or any­thing I need, I can feel com­fort­able to go and ask him. He makes it way eas­ier for me to go ask for what­ever I need,” Vrana said. “We’ve been cre­at­ing pretty good chances the last few games. Ob­vi­ously there’s lit­tle de­tails we need to work on, like shot and fin­ish and stuff, but I think we’ve showed some good chem­istry so far.”

Eller rec­og­nizes that if he con­tin­ues play­ing the way he’s play­ing, the points will nat­u­rally come. But Eller rep­re­sents a key cog that was miss­ing in the Cap­i­tals at­tempt at a cham­pi­onship run just last sea­son. The Cap­i­tals opted to uti­lize Bea­gle as a third-line cen­ter, a player far more equipped for a more de­fen­sive fourth-line role. They also tried to in­sert Mike Richards into the equa­tion. But at the tail-end of his ca­reer, it was far too much to ask from the 31-year-old Richards.

If Eller is start­ing to warm up to his team and get his of­fen­sive juices flow­ing, he gives the Cap­i­tals three le­git­i­mate of­fen­sive lines ca­pa­ble of scor­ing a goal on any given shift. In a fierce Met­ro­pol­i­tan Divi­sion that fea­tures five of the NHL’s top seven teams, three of­fen­sive lines has be­come a ne­ces­sity in suc­cess.

Eller has a sense of con­fi­dence in his game, and it’s be­gin­ning to trans­late to his on-ice play. That can only help Washington.

“I like the di­rec­tion I’m head­ing in,” Eller said.

AS­SO­CI­ATED PRESS

Washington Cap­i­tals cen­ter Lars Eller has re­cently cre­ated more scor­ing chances and ap­ply­ing pres­sure in the of­fen­sive zone af­ter ini­tially strug­gling with just two goals and a sin­gle as­sists in the first 26 games.

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