LAS VEGAS — Braden Holtby didn’t divulge many details about how Lars Eller earned the nickname “Tiger.”
“It was last year, at a team event-type thing. He just — he was the Tiger,” Holtby said. “There was no other way to put it.”
If he earned the nickname at some off-the-ice function, Eller has kept it by stepping up in the biggest moments, particularly when another Washington Capitals center suffers and injury.
When Nicklas Backstrom left the Capitals’ Game 5 against the Pittsburgh Penguins hurt, Eller filled in on the second line the rest of that game and stayed there for several games — even after Backstrom returned healthy.
And Wednesday night, when Evgeny Kuznetsov left in the first period of Game 2 of the Stanley Cup Final with an upper-body injury, Eller pulled double shifts for much of the game while Backstrom moved up to Kuznetsov’s spot.
Eller recorded 3 points in the Capitals’ 3-2 win at T-Mobile Arena, which evened the series 1-1.
“He’s the guy who’s kind of our secret weapon,” Alex Ovechkin said. “It’s hard to play (against us) when he’s on top of his game and when he feels the puck, when he creates the moment for us. He was pretty big for us.”
Eller got Washington on the board while still playing with Andre Burakovsky and Brett Connolly on the the third line. In a 4-on-4 situation in the first period, he won an O-zone faceoff with a pass to Burakovsky, and the winger passed one way to Michal Kempny only for Kempny to return it across the ice to Eller on a bang-bang play.
But shortly after that, Kuznetsov took a check from Brayden McNabb and appeared to hurt his arm or hand. He did not return to the game and coach Barry Trotz had no update on his injury afterward.
Trotz moved Backstrom up to the top line and Eller back to the second, with Jakub Vrana and T.J. Oshie, where he thrived for several games in Backstrom’s place against Pittsburgh and Tampa Bay in earlier series.
“I don’t know, but the more I’m out there, the better I feel with the puck. A better flow in my game. I knew from the Tampa series that I have really good chemistry with Vrana and Oshie, so it wasn’t a surprise for me when we did some good things over the back together. I’m just playing on instincts.”
His first assist came on a power play, though, another unit he stepped in for Kuznetsov. He set Ovechkin up on a slick pass across the crease for the captain to one-time it past Marc-Andre Fleury. And later in the second period, he assisted Brooks Orpik on the defenseman’s first goal in his last 220 regular season or playoff games.
Eller played 18:37 on the ice, third among Washington forwards but only six seconds fewer than Oshie. He remained on the penalty kill in addition to stepping up on the power play and making a difference at even strength.
Jay Beagle said it’s “a character thing” when Eller rises to the occasion for an injured teammate.
“He’s just given more responsibility and he thrives on it,” Beagle said. “It’s good, I think it shows the type of person and type of player that he is.”
Trotz applauded Eller for stepping up again, and said the players on the bench saw Kuzentsov’s injury and said, “Let’s dig in.”
“Number one, (Eller’s) a good player. That’s where it starts,” Trotz said. “And I think Lars is not shy to take on the responsibility. He knows that he’s got to fill in big shoes, either Backy or Kuzy in the playoffs. He knows he’s got an opportunity, and I think he relishes it. He takes that opportunity to showcase what he’s able to do, and he knows that we’re relying on him. He’s one of our more popular guys in our room for sure.”
Kuznetsov’s status for the rest of the series remains uncertain, and nobody on the Capitals would rather he stay sidelined. But if that worst-case scenario presents itself, the Tiger will be lurking again.
“In the Stanley Cup Final, you want to be on the ice, not on the bench,” Eller said. “I enjoyed every single moment of it. … I don’t know if Kuzy’s gonna play next game or not, but if he isn’t, I’m gonna be ready. We’re gonna be ready.”