- The Washington Times - Saturday, May 12, 2018

TAMPA — Capitals center Lars Eller grinned and started laughing. He confessed to having a good and friendly scoring competition with teammate Jay Beagle over the last four to five months.

In practice, the two have pushed each other, thriving off the energy they have created. And as a result, both started scoring more in actual games.

“I think he might be up one in practices, but if you take the games into account I’ll be up a few,” said Eller, who had a career-high 18 goals this season.

Eller’s dynamic with Beagle is just another example of how well he has adapted to the Capitals since being traded from the Montreal Canadiens in 2016.

He has been able to do so, largely, because the Capitals have kept him on the third-line. With Washington, Eller knows his role — providing him a sense of relief. In Montreal, Eller was shuffled throughout the lineup, while playing different positions.

“I [was] kind of lost at times,” Eller said.

Now that he’s comfortable with the Capitals, Eller said he’s found his identity as a player, nine years into his career.

Eller has even responded nicely to taking on a bigger role. For the last two games, the 29-year-old centered the second line in place of star Nicklas Backstrom, who is battling an upper-body injury.

Backstrom is the Capitals’ best two-way center, but Eller has been able to fill many of the same tasks.

In the playoffs, Eller has scored four times — including once in Friday’s 4-2 victory over the Tampa Bay Lightning in Game 1. His goal came on the power play, slotting in with the top unit where Backstrom would normally play.

“He kind of falls in the shadow a little bit of our other two centermen who are world-class players in [Evgeny Kuznetsov] and Backy,” forward T.J. Oshie said. “But Lars has been a very big part of our team success this year. … He got a shot to step up and play some bigger minutes ,and he’s seized that moment.”

Eller’s progression has been building for some time. After the Capitals lost forwards Justin Williams and Marcus Johansson last offseason, Eller’s role expanded heading into the season. He was elevated to the team’s second power play unit.

Eller stepped up to the challenge, and was rewarded with a five-year, $17.5 million contract extension in February. He likely could have gotten more on the open market after the season, though he liked his fit with the Capitals.

Capitals coach Barry Trotz said Eller is playing with confidence, adding he’s improved by watching Backstrom and Kuznetsov.

“He’s got way more deception in his game than he had previously,” Trotz said.

Backstrom, meanwhile, is expected to return in the Lightning series. He skated on his own Saturday, while the rest of the team was off. Trotz said he’s “optimistic” Backstrom would be available before the third round is over.

Until then, Eller said his mindset doesn’t change with Backstrom out. On Friday, Eller saw 20:35 of ice time — the most among the Capitals’ forwards.

“That’s the position you want to be in as a player. You want to play as much as possible. I embrace that,” Eller said. “That’s where I want to be. That’s great. When it’s the playoffs you want to be out there as much as possible.”

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