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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.”

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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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Backstrom the catalyst behind Capitals' trip to the edge of advancement

Backstrom the catalyst behind Capitals' trip to the edge of advancement

WASHINGTON — It had been nine years since Capitals center Nicklas Backstrom last had a four-point game in the Stanley Cup playoffs.

That was a different time, an era when Backstrom and his teammates too often faltered under the weight of enormous expectations.  That’s all gone now. There is a Stanley Cup banner hanging in the rafters at Capital One Arena to prove it. Now they can all just play. 

With teammate T.J. Oshie hurt and likely out for the season, Backstrom continued to raise his own game in Game 5 of a first-round playoff series against the Carolina Hurricanes. He had two goals and two assists in a 6-0 thrashing as Washington took a 3-2 series lead and pushed the Hurricanes to the brink of elimination. Alex Ovechkin added a goal and two assists.  

Backstrom’s last four-point playoff games was April 17, 2010. He had a hat trick that night and scored the game-winning goal in overtime. 

“That was probably Montreal, right?” Backstrom said before confessing. “Yeah, Ovi told me. He remembers everything.”

Those were darker days. The Capitals blew a 3-1 series lead against Montreal that year and maybe the best team of the Ovechkin era went out in the first round despite winning the Presidents’ Trophy. No wonder Backstrom needed help remembering. 

There is no such issue this season. The 31-year-old Swede is carrying the Capitals, who are one game away from advancing. It was his second two-goal game of the series. He has five total, which matches his career high for one playoff series set in 2010 against the Canadiens. He and Ovechkin, who has seven points in the series (three goals, four assists) set a tone and their teammates followed. 

"In all areas, too,” goalie Braden Holtby said. “Obviously they got on the point sheet, but their play away from the puck, on the forecheck, supporting each other, they're real tough to play against when they play like that and I thought they've been doing a great job all playoffs, too.”

Backstrom’s five goals matched what he had all last postseason when the Caps won the Cup. He missed games because of a broken finger, but still played in 20 and had five goals and 18 assists. He matched his total output of eight points in 2009 against Pittsburgh and 2018 against Columbus. His career best is again that Montreal series when he had nine points. Not that he cares about that now. None of the Caps do. If the production leads to wins and advancing to the second round, that’s all that matters.  

“It’s good for the confidence I think. But it’s going to be a different game in Carolina,” Backstrom said. “We’ve just got to regroup here and move forward. That was just a 3-2 lead. Toughest one is the last one. We haven’t been happy with the way we’ve played in Carolina so far. Let’s change that.”

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Braden Holtby’s new franchise record overshadowed by blowout win and he’s just fine with that

Braden Holtby’s new franchise record overshadowed by blowout win and he’s just fine with that

WASHINGTON – On a night in which the Capitals erupted for six goals against the Carolina Hurricanes in Game 5 to take a 3-2 series lead, goalie Braden Holtby’s contributions were largely overshadowed. Nicklas Backstrom scored his fourth and fifth goals of the playoffs in a four-point night while Alex Ovechkin added a goal and three points of his own. Even Nic Dowd got into the mix as he scored Washington’s first penalty shot goal in playoff history.

When a team wins a game 6-0, it is easy to discount the contribution of the goalie and assume the offense carried the team. That was not the case on Saturday as Holtby played a pivotal role in Washington taking back control of its first-round series.

And he set a franchise record doing it.

With 30 saves, Holtby recorded his seventh career playoff shutout passing Olie Kolzig’s previous franchise record of six. Holtby now stands alone with the most postseason shutouts in team history.

But you won’t see him celebrating too hard.

“It means I’m getting old,” Holtby said.

Holtby may be the only goalie in the world who does not seem to care about shutouts. He has been consistent on this point throughout his career, always saying that shutouts only matter because it means he helped put the team in a position to win.

When it comes to individual accolades, however, Holtby is just not interested.

When asked what holding Carolina scoreless on Saturday did for his confidence, Holtby was blunt.

"Nothing,” he said. “It's a win. We regroup, we know they're going to come harder next game and we'll focus on that."

As focused as Holtby seemed to be after the game, was just as focused in it on Saturday as he turned in his best performance of the series. Despite the final score, the game was close halfway through with Washington clinging to a one-goal lead. Holtby was brilliant between the pipes, however, especially in the second period as Washington faced three straight power plays. He turned aside 15 shots in the middle frame alone to help the Caps keep their lead and eventually run away with the win.

“Our goaltender was tremendous,” Todd Reirden said. “Those things, if you can have the special teams and your goaltender at that type of a level then you're going to give yourself a real good chance to have success.”

The offense stole the headlines after Saturday’s win, but that’s a result the Caps do not get without Holtby’s record-setting performance in net.

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