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Why Lars Eller may be the key to beating the Penguins

Why Lars Eller may be the key to beating the Penguins

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.”

RELATED: Trotz calls Hornqvist a guy who 'conveniently will fall on your goalie'

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 Carl Hagelin, 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.”

MORE CAPITALS: Key matchup: Penguins' power play vs. Caps' penalty kill

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Blackhawks fans tossed after directing racist remarks at Washington's Smith-Pelly

Blackhawks fans tossed after directing racist remarks at Washington's Smith-Pelly

CHICAGO—Four fans were ejected from United Center on Saturday night for taunting Devante Smith-Pelly as the Capitals’ winger sat in the penalty box.

The fans, according to a team spokesman, yelled “basketball, basketball, basketball” at Smith-Pelly, who is black. Smith-Pelly was in the box for fighting in the third period of an eventual 7-1 loss to the Blackhawks.

The taunts were confirmed by an off-ice official, the spokesman said, and the fans were subsequently removed from the arena.

Smith-Pelly did not speak with reporters after the game but is expected to address the incident at the team’s next media availability. The team is scheduled to practice Sunday at KeyBank Center in Buffalo.

Caps Coach Barry Trotz did not hold back when asked about the fans' comments.

“There’s absolutely no place in the game of hockey or our country for racism,” Trotz said. “I think it’s disgusting, and there’s no place for it. …It just shows ignorance.”

The Blackhawks responded on Twitter with an apology to Smith-Pelly, who is one of roughly 30 black players in the NHL.

February is Hockey is For Everyone month in the NHL.

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3 stars of the game: Caps suffer ugly loss to scuffling Blackhawks

3 stars of the game: Caps suffer ugly loss to scuffling Blackhawks

Just about everything that could go wrong did for the Capitals on Saturday in a 7-1 loss to the Chicago Blackhawks.

The Caps were coming off a strong 5-2 win over the Minnesota Wild on Thursday, but none of that carried over in the trip to Chicago. The Caps took on a Blackhawks team that had lost eight in a row, but Chicago quickly took control in the first period and never looked back.

Washington gave up 21 shots on goal in the first period and found themselves down 3-1 after the opening frame. Things did not get much better from there as they gave up another three goals in the final four minutes of the second.

Here are the three stars of the game.

1. Jonathan Toews: Toews opened up the scoring in the first period with a quick shot from the corner that caught Braden Holtby by surprise.

Later in the first, he recorded an assist as his pass sparked a breakout that led to Brandon Saad's deal that gave Chicago back the lead. The Caps tried to make a game of it in the second period, but Toews intercepted a pass from Brooks Orpik that led to a 2-on-0 with himself and Patrick Kane that Kane netted to give the Blackhawks a 4-1 lead and signaled to everyone that the rout was on. Saturday was only the second three-point night of the season for Toews.

2. Patrick Kane: Toews helped the Blackhawks take control early, but Kane helped provide the knockout punches in the second period. A bad pass from Orpik was intercepted by Toews that led to a 2-on-0 with Kane. Holtby made the initial save on Toews, but Kane was able to knock in the rebound for the goal.

Kane also added an assist on Artem Anisimov's power play goal which extended Chicago's lead to 6-1.

3. Tom Wilson: Before this one got out of hand, it looked like Wilson had erased the tough start for the Caps as he deflected a shot from Matt Niskanen into the net to get Washington on the board.

Saturday's tally was his third goal in two games and his 10th of the season, marking the first time in his career he has reached double digits in goals.