Eller’s value to third line to prove worth

The Washington Times Daily - - SPORTS - BY MATT PARAS

Cen­ter Lars Eller knows what hap­pened to the Wash­ing­ton Cap­i­tals in last year’s play­off matchup against the Pitts­burgh Pen­guins. He knows this se­ries, against this op­po­nent, is a big part of the rea­son the Cap­i­tals made the trade to bring him to Wash­ing­ton from the Mon­treal Cana­di­ens.

Eller re­called Cap­i­tals coach Barry Trotz telling him the strength of Wash­ing­ton’s third line was “something they were miss­ing” when the Cap­i­tals lost in six games to the Pen­guins in 2016.

The Cap­i­tals’ sea­son ended on May 10 and on June 24, Wash­ing­ton gave up two draft picks for Eller.

Now, Eller and the third line will get a chance to prove their worth when the Cap­i­tals get an­other shot at the Pen­guins in the sec­ond round. Game 1 is Thurs­day at 7:30 p.m. at the Ver­i­zon Cen­ter.

“If you look at the last cou­ple of [Stan­ley] Cup win­ners, they al­ways have big goals from their third or fourth line in big games,” Eller said. “A lot of the times, that’s what can tilt a game in your fa­vor and even­tu­ally the se­ries. It’s important.”

Eller was in his car when he got the call from Cana­di­ens gen­eral man­ager Marc Ber­win. The trade took Eller by sur­prise, con­sid­er­ing he had been with the Cana­di­ens for six sea­sons. He had to ad­just to a new city and a new scheme.

But dur­ing the reg­u­lar sea­son, the Cap­i­tals saw the im­pact they’d hoped for when they ac­quired the 27-year-old na­tive of Den­mark. When Eller was on the ice with An­dre Bu­rakovsky

and Brett Con­nolly, the Cap­i­tals scored 16 goals while only al­low­ing six.

The Eller-Bu­rakovsky-Con­nolly trio was also one of the most pro­duc­tive units in puck pos­ses­sion in the en­tire NHL. The group was fifth among lines that played at least 200 min­utes in per­cent­age of shot at­tempt dif­fer­en­tial, mean­ing the Cap­i­tals took 58.57 per­cent of the shot at­tempts when they were on the ice.

Eller said the line found its rhythm around late De­cem­ber and early Jan­uary. Trotz cred­ited the line’s im­prove­ment once they up­graded Eller from Mike Richards, one of last year’s cen­ters on the third line. Jay Bea­gle filled the spot as well.

“Lars, he’s a big-frame guy, he can play against big cen­ter­men, he can play against quick cen­ter­men,” Trotz said. “He’s been fairly pro­duc­tive. … Nothing against Richie who was fab­u­lous for us last year, but we didn’t get much of­fense out of that po­si­tion last year.”

In the play­offs, the third line hasn’t been as pro­duc­tive, forc­ing Trotz to make changes. In Game 4 against Toronto, for­ward Tom Wil­son re­placed Con­nolly on the line. In the games since, Con­nolly’s min­utes have dropped and he has only seen an av­er­age of 5:24 in ice time since the change.

Eller and Bu­rakovsky have yet to score a goal in the play­offs, while Wil­son has three goals.

“We’ll need some more of­fense out of that group go­ing for­ward, but we got of­fense all through ev­ery line,” Trotz said.

The Pen­guins’ ros­ter is largely the same since the last play­off matchup. while the Cap­i­tals added free agent Con­nolly and traded for Eller and de­fense­man Kevin Shat­tenkirk, who was ac­quired to boost the third defensive pair­ing and bring an of­fen­sive threat to the power play.

Con­nolly said his lim­ited min­utes have made it hard to have an im­pact in the play­offs, but he knows the im­por­tance of the third and fourth lines.

“Me and Lars were brought in here to eat up some min­utes and cre­ate some of­fense in the bot­tom six. I think we did that in the reg­u­lar sea­son,” Con­nolly said. “This is go­ing to be a big se­ries. … We’re go­ing to have to be good. They have two bot­tom six lines that can play.”

The units have done the job to help get the Cap­i­tals this far, but how much of an im­pact they will have against the de­fend­ing Stan­ley Cup cham­pi­ons — and if they can get past them — re­mains to be seen.

“I can’t wait for that chal­lenge,” Eller said. “I think a lot of guys in here have pic­tured that this is a spot we could end up be­ing in — fac­ing [the Pen­guins] some­time in the play­offs and now is that time. We’re just thrilled to have that op­por­tu­nity.”

AS­SO­CI­ATED PRESS

With Lars Eller on the ice, the Wash­ing­ton Cap­i­tals’ third line scored 16 goals while only al­low­ing six this sea­son.

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