When the Washington Capitals and Pittsburgh Penguins met in the second round of the playoffs last year, Sidney Crosby and Evgeni Malkin were held to only four combined points. That should be good enough to win, and yet it wasn’t for the Caps who had no answer for Pittsburgh’s scoring depth.
This year, Washington expects things to be different. Why? Because of Lars Eller.
The Caps will feature other new faces as well including Brett Connolly and Kevin Shattenkirk, but Connolly was a low-risk, high reward gamble and Shattenkirk was a deadline acquisition. Really the only move the Caps made to bolster their depth in direct response to last year's series loss was Eller.
Washington traded two second-round draft picks to Montreal for the Danish center in the offseason. With a career-high of 30 points, clearly the Caps were looking for versatility more so than strictly offensive production.
“He's a skilled player, but he can do the harder work, too,” Nicklas Backstrom said. “He plays PK, he plays important situations so, he's a great guy to have on the team.”
Eller was brought to Washington with one clear role: Center the third line.
Consistency was not something Eller was able to enjoy in Montreal as head coach Michel Therrien constantly shuffled lines even electing to use Eller as a winger at times. In a stacked Washington lineup, however, it was clear just where Eller fit in. Even when Barry Trotz shuffled lines at points over the course of the season, Eller remained the constant on the third line.
“Probably the first time in my career I had that kind of stability,” Eller said. “I think it took us a good while to find the lines and get the right mix for every line. That took some time, but once we got that around late December, beginning of January, I think the whole team got on a roll and my line really got on a roll as well and a lot of pieces just kind of came together. It's been trending up in the right direction all year and now we're here.”
Eller scored 12 goals and 13 assists in 81 games with the Caps this season, helping lead Washington to the Presidents’ Trophy, but that was not why he was brought in. He was brought to this team to give the Caps the depth they learned they needed to make a deep layoff run.
“That's what we tried to address with getting Lars in that role,” Trotz said. “We'll find out. I think we addressed it, it's up to the player.”
Is it an overstatement to call Eller the key to the series? Perhaps, but then again, perhaps not. The key line for Pittsburgh in last season’s series was the “HBK” line of Patric Hornqvist, Nic Bonino and Phil Kessel. They were the Penguins’ third line.
Now the Caps are hoping they have found their own key third line of Andre Burakovsky, Eller and Tom Wilson.
“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 this team sometime in the playoffs. Now is that time. We're just thrilled to have that opportunity.”
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The major story of last year’s series between the Washington Capitals and Pittsburgh Penguins was the other guys, the players not named Sidney Crosby and Evgeni Malkin who carried the Penguins to victory. Guys like Patric Hornqvist.
On Wednesday in the last full practice before Game 1, Hornqvist practiced on the top line with Sidney Crosby and rookie Jake Guentzel. That’s a lot of skill on one line. What does Hornqvist add? Net-front presence.
“He's relentless,” Capitals head coach Barry Trotz said. “He's fearless.”
Trotz would know. Hornqvist spent the first six seasons of his NHL career in Nashville playing under Trotz.
It's not always easy being a net-front guy. It takes a willingness to face slap shots from your teammates. The opposing defense will also do everything they can to muscle you out of your spot. None of that seems to matter to Hornqvist.
Trotz illustrated Hornqvist's willingness to get to the front of the net during his time in Nashville.
“When I had [Pekka Rinne], [Hornqvist] would line up in front of Pekka and we would do one-timers with Shea Weber and that's what he practiced every day. He would be standing there.”
Weber is now a three-time winner for the hardest shot in the NHL. If that is not enough to scare you from standing in front of the net, nothing is.
Getting good net-front presence, however, is about more than just standing in front of the net. Hornqvist is a guy who understands all the nuances of that role and that’s what makes him such a dangerous player.
“He conveniently will fall on your goalie many times," Trotz said, "But he's a hungry athlete in that area and he understands his role and that's what makes him special in that area.”
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