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.”