Lars Eller

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Game 3 of the Caps-Blue Jackets 2018 playoff series ignited a rivalry

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Game 3 of the Caps-Blue Jackets 2018 playoff series ignited a rivalry

The Columbus Blue Jackets opened its first season in franchise history in 2000. For most of the first 18 years of the team's existence, the Caps took little notice of them. Why would they? Columbus was originally a Western Conference expansion team until it moved to the Metropolitan Division in 2013. Despite being in the same division as the Caps, the NHL's realignment also brought Washington together with the Pittsburgh Penguins, Philadelphia Flyers and New York Rangers. The Blue Jackets just did not compare.

That's certainly not the case anymore.

"When you play a team like Columbus, we have a pretty good rivalry with them and they're a tough team to play against so we've got to be ready for them," Tom Wilson said.

Things changed between the Caps and Blue Jackets in 2018. More specifically, things changed on April 17, 2018.

    In 2018, once again Washington was headed to the playoffs with a high seed after a strong regular season and once again, no one had any faith in a team with a long history of playoff disappointments. The Caps drew Columbus in the first round of the playoffs and the Blue Jackets jumped out to a 2-0 series lead after taking both games in Washington in overtime.

    The series looked over. Heck, the entire era of the Cup-hopeful Caps looked over. One goal late in Game 3 on April 17, 2018 changed everything.

    In Game 3, Washington and Columbus once again battled to a tie in regulation. In double overtime with the season essentially on the line, Lars Eller scored the ugliest most beautiful overtime winner as he charged the net and the puck pinballed off of him and a defender before finally trickling into the net.

    Eller called the goal "maybe the biggest one" he has scored, which is high praise for a player who would go on to score the Stanley Cup-clinching goal.

    "Maybe also the longest game I've ever played," Eller said. "It just makes this more satisfying to come out on top after four-and-a-half periods or whatever it was."

    The series devolved from there for Columbus with the Caps going on to win four straight before going on to win the Stanley Cup.

    But the Caps never hoist that Cup without Eller's goal, something Todd Reirden said he thinks about.

    "All the time I've thought that," he said. "That was a crazy turn of events."

    "It certainly wasn't a picture-perfect play that went right underneath the cross-bar," he added. "It won't be remembered like that. It will be remembered that it was a beautiful goal and it was a defining moment for sure."

    The Blue Jackets evidently were not over that loss in January 2019 the following season when Artemi Panarin scored an overtime winner at Capital One Arena. Columbus taunted the Caps with Evgeny Kuznetsov's bird celebration after the win.

    From the Caps' perspective, there's no question the intensity between these two teams went up a notch after that playoff series.

    "I think when you play divisional rivals, you face each other all the time, there tends to be a bit more emotion in the game," Eller said. "I think it's certainly the case with this team over the years, especially when you play them in playoffs too."

    "That's how I felt about it for sure," Reirden said. "There's some different characters in the story in the last little bit with different players for us and for them that are involved, but that's how they're coached to play a hard, physical brand of hockey and they do a good job of that. It's never an easy game."

    The Caps-Blue Jackets rivalry will be renewed for the first time this season on Monday (7 p.m., NBC Sports Washington) in the first of three meetings between these two teams in the next 18 days.

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    Brian MacLellan preaches patience for Richard Panik and the third line

    Brian MacLellan preaches patience for Richard Panik and the third line

    ARLINGTON, Va. -- One of the question marks for the Capitals heading into the 2019-20 season was the third line. With Brett Connolly and Andre Burakovsky’s departure in the offseason, the team lost a lot of its depth scoring. In their place, general manager Brian MacLellan signed forward Richard Panik as an unrestricted free agent and also re-signed Carl Hagelin.

    Now 25 games into the season, the Caps are tied for the most points in the NHL and tied for fourth in goals per game, but that has largely been despite the third line’s lack of production, not because of it. But while the fans are already clamoring for change, general manager Brian MacLellan has not seen enough of that line to draw any conclusions just yet.

    The projected third line at the start of the season was Lars Eller at center with Hagelin and Panik on the wings. So far, Eller has five goals and eight assists, but none of those points came from the Hagelin, Eller, Panik trio. Hagelin has five assists and has yet to score this season.

    Panik seems to have struggled the most with only one goal to show for his first 15 games with Washington.

    “For him, it's been up and down,” MacLellan said. “His performance has been good and it's been not so good. But we've got to give him some time to fit in and to play with his normal linemates for a stretch during the season.”

    Still, MacLellan stressed patience on Tuesday, saying the biggest issue for the trio of Hagelin, Eller and Panik is the simple fact that they have not been able to play together all that much yet.

    “I don't know that we've had the opportunity to see that line and whether it works or it doesn't work yet,” MacLellan said. “I think we saw Hagelin and Eller last year. It seemed to work for us the last part of the year. I'd like a bigger sample size to see all three of those guys work together.”

    According to Natural Stat Trick, Hagelin, Eller and Panik have zero goals when playing together as a line 5-on-5, but have only played together in eight games this season for a grand total of 23:13. That is hardly what you could call a fair sample size to judge any sort of chemistry they may have as a line.

    Injuries have limited Panik and Hagelin to just 15 and 17 games respectively, while Eller has enjoyed time on the second line with Evgeny Kuznetsov suspended to start the season and now with Nicklas Backstrom out injured. Panik also played on the fourth line for a stretch after struggling at the start of the season.

    Will the third line find the same level of production as it did last season with Connolly being a major offensive weapon, or the year before with Burakovsky, Eller and Connolly? No. That much seems certain. But MacLellan did not assemble this trio with the intent of replicating that level of production.

    "I think we changed the identity of our third line,” MacLellan said. “It became more penalty kill focused, more two-way focused than it was last year.”

    “Ideally, we'd like to have a line that could kill penalties, that can play against top-six forwards and produce 5-on-5,” he added. “Not to the level that we had last year, because I don't feel we need that much production. We need more two-way game.”

    After dealing with several injuries, it appears the Caps are finally trending in the right direction health-wise. Once the team does get back to full strength again, you can bet getting that trio together is going to be a priority so the team can finally, finally start to figure out just what this third line can do.

    “We haven't seen that line together much,” MacLellan said. “As we get healthy, I think we'll have a better indication of whether it works or it doesn't work.”

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    Capitals Mailbag Part 1: Did the Caps address all of their weaknesses?

    Capitals Mailbag Part 1: Did the Caps address all of their weaknesses?

    It’s time for a new Capitals mailbag! Check out Part 1 below.

    Have a Caps question you want answered in the next mailbag? Send it on Twitter using #CapsMailNBC or by email to CapitalsMailbag@gmail.com.

    Please note, some questions have been edited for clarity.

    John F. writes: Can Alex Ovechkin break Wayne Gretzky's career goals record? What will it take?

    It will take 237 more goals.

    OK, but what does that mean exactly? Ovechkin will turn 34 before the start of the season. Let’s say he plays seven more seasons and retires when he is 40. He would have to average 34 goals per year to do that.

    That seems doable for Ovechkin, but you have to remember that Father Time is undefeated. At some point the production will decrease. You also have to wonder if he will even play that long. That’s no guarantee. If he does, it would be hard for him to return to Russia to play in the KHL, which many believe he would want to do given his outspoken pride for his home country.

    For this to be a realistic possibility, it is going to require at least one more 45-50 goal season and probably another 40 goal season on top of that. He is going to have to get a good chunk of goals this year while he is still productive because eventually he is not going to be able to score 50 goals anymore. Then he won’t be able to score 40, and so on.

    I can’t sit here and tell you that it is impossible because Ovechkin keeps redefining what is possible for a goal scorer over 30. Having said that, I still am not willing to say I think he will do it. Considering we all marvel at what he has been able to do the last two seasons and he still sits over 200 goals away, I still have my money on the Great One keeping his record.

    Blake B. writes: The Capitals appear to have addressed all of their necessities this offseason (i.e. filling their 3rd and 4th lines, unloading salary and making tough but necessary trades). What are the biggest question marks, uncertainties and holes entering the 2019-2020 season?

    There are a few and some of your fellow readers asked about them as well this week. For me, depth offense is a concern. The Caps got only five goals from their bottom-six in seven playoff games against the Carolina Hurricanes. One goal was an empty-netter, one was a penalty shot and the remaining three came from Brett Connolly and Andre Burakovsky, who are both gone. Offensively, the team did not get better, so where are those goals going to come from? More on this later.

    Players like Connolly and Burakovsky provided injury insurance. Both players could plug into the top-six in case of injury. Hagelin and Panik now look like those players, but both look like offensive downgrades in that respect.

    On defense, the team looks pretty set assuming Nick Jensen can handle a top-four role. I wrote about this as part of our “Burning Questions" series we are currently running. The team’s defense truly hinges on Jensen. If he plays well, you have a clear top-four with an upgraded bottom pair thanks to the acquisition of Gudas. If Jensen does not play well, you have a major hole on the blue line and no clear candidate to fill it, plus a defenseman with three more years on his contract after this season.

    And then there is the power play. Brian MacLellan focused on defense in the offseason, so the team should be improved in that area and on the penalty kill. The sacrifice was losing some offensive depth, but you can potentially make that up if the team rebounds on the power play. More on this later too.

    Ben C. writes: Our bottom-six seems to be better defensively now. How do you think they will contribute offensively?

    I also wrote about this very subject for our “Burning Questions” series. Hagelin is a very versatile player, but offense is not his strong suit. He managed only five goals and 19 total points last season. He has never scored 20 goals in any season of his career and has reached 30 points only once in the past five years. Eller has tallied 38 and 36 points in each of the past two seasons, the best two seasons of his career. But, like Hagelin, he has never scored 20 goals at any point in his career. Panik scored 20 goals only once in 2016-17 when he was with the Chicago Blackhawks and playing on a line with Jonathan Toews. Last season with the Arizona Coyotes, he totaled 14 goals and 19 assists.

    Simply put, there is no way a third line of Hagelin, Eller and Panik will produce as much offensively as the third line did last year. The good news, however, is that If the team improved defensively as much as they hope, they shouldn’t need to.

    Brian R. writes: Do you anticipate any changes to how the PP gets run this year considering how inconsistent it was last year either a new scheme or different personnel?

    The obvious glaring issue with the power play last season was zone entry, so fingers crossed that this will lead the team to scrap the horrendous slingshot which doesn’t work and is ugly to watch. Considering so many other teams utilize it as well, however, I am doubtful they will, but one can hope.

    I wonder if Tom Wilson will see more time in T.J. Oshie’s spot in the slot. Wilson does not play that spot as well as Oshie does, but if the team does move on from the slingshot, then the dump-in may be more common and you need that bigger body to fight for the pucks in the corners and behind the goal line to keep possession.

    Really, everything depends on how the team decides to fix its zone entry problem. If it remains status quo, then I do not see any changes. If they finally realize how awful the slingshot truly is, then you have to work on a new method for zone entry and put together the best personnel to operate it.

    Chas L. writes: With T.J. Oshie possibly looking at less playing time on the third line, is it time for the Caps to bring up a prospect or two? With all the new free agent additions, the Caps all together have gotten a lot older age wise. Would it hurt to maybe push down players like Lars Eller and Oshie and bring up some young prospects?

    A few things. First, moving Oshie down to the third line was more realistic before they lost so much offensive depth. I have written on this topic before about how I believe reducing Oshie’s minutes would be beneficial given his playing style, but I am not sure how realistic an option this is when the two candidates to replace him would be Hagelin and Panik.

    Hagelin’s offense is a bit too limited for me to put him in the top-six when the team is at full strength. He is a solid replacement player if there is an injury in the top-six, but otherwise that is not ideal. Panik, on the other hand, is an unknown coming in as a free agent.

    Second, bringing in prospects is a great option if you have prospects ready to make the jump. The Caps do not think they do and they showed that with all the depth signings they made in the offseason. You do not sign Panik or Garnet Hathaway for four years if you think Axel Jonsson-Fjallby and Shane Gersich are going to be taking their jobs at the start of the season.

    MacLellan was probably hoping more prospects would be ready for the NHL as they would have been cheap replacements for the players lost, but I am not sure anyone is ready to make that jump yet.

    Third, part of the appeal of pushing Oshie to the third line, if that was still a realistic possibility, would be to play him with Eller. They have great chemistry together and this would be a formidable third line. Pushing Eller to the fourth not only would push Nic Dowd out of the lineup, but it would also waste Eller’s skill. There comes a point where a team can have too much depth and it becomes a waste. If Washington had several home-grown centers knocking on the door, trading Eller would be a more realistic possibility. As of now, however, that is not the case.

    John F. writes: Not to go full-Don Cherry, but is the lack of "good Canadian boys" on the team a concern? (For the record: I don't think it is).

    No. Where players are from is completely irrelevant. It is foolish and I would argue racist to think having one specific nationality is the key to winning. I can take Don Cherry’s “old man yelling at clouds” takes because those are harmless. His blind support of all things Canadian while downplaying players of other nationalities, however, is infuriating to me.

    Cherry may want to believe the Caps won the Stanley Cup because of Tom Wilson and Braden Holtby, but this completely ignores the all-time great Russian who won the Conn Smythe, a Russian who led the team in scoring, a future Hall of Fame Swedish center, a top defensive pairing with an American and a Czech and a Dane who scored the Cup clinching goal.

    This is a ridiculous sentiment that for some reason lingers in Canada, where no team has won a Stanley Cup since 1993, but I am sure that is just because none of those teams had enough Canadian players.

    Thanks for all your questions! Part 2 of the mailbag will be coming on Thursday. If you have a question you want to be answered in the next mailbag, send it to CapitalsMailbag@gmail.com or use #CapsMailNBC on Twitter.

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