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The Timely Strong Play of Lars Eller

Taking a look at how Lars Eller has stepped up when needed the most

NHL: Stanley Cup Playoffs-Washington Capitals at Tampa Bay Lightning Kim Klement-USA TODAY Sports

Before this season, when he set a new career-best with 38 points, Lars Eller had never scored more than 30 points in an NHL season (although it’s worth noting that those 30 points came in only 46 games played in 2012-2013). He was a dependable, if unremarkable, depth player. In this year’s playoffs, that same guy has 11 points (5g, 6a) in fourteen games played.

And no points bigger than his game-winner late in the 2nd period of Game 2 in the Eastern Conference Final, and in the game before that a powerplay goal that put the Caps up 4-0, and the opening game of the series firmly out of reach for the Tampa Bay Lightning. He also won the offensive zone faceoff with 9 seconds left in the 2nd period that ultimately led to Evgeny Kuznetsov’s backbreaker goal. But the underlying context is that Eller has been boosted up to the second line to fill the shoes of Nicklas Backstrom, who’s nursing a hand injury suffered in Game 5 of Round 2 against the Pittsburgh Penguins.

Eller’s new responsibility comes on the heels of a big promotion for Jakub Vrana, and the resulting second line is Vrana-Eller-Oshie...and in three games together they’ve set the world on fire.

Caps’ Second Line

Vrana / Eller / Oshie 62.2 71.8 68.2 75

Those numbers are out of this world. Let’s examine what it’s meant for the team. Below is a time series of several possession metrics for this year’s playoff run, with the Eller-on-line-2 window highlighted.

Generally speaking, these last three games have been among the strongest stretch of sustained possession play since the playoffs began. That’s a great sign, having come against two stellar 5v5 teams in the Pittsburgh Penguins and Tampa Bay Lightning, and with a depleted roster to boot. The rebooted second line has obviously contributed to this, but the rest of the lineup has acquitted themselves quite well too. Let’s try to isolate performance change on the second line by using T.J. Oshie, who’s been a mainstay there, as a proxy.

This view shows us what we’d expect to see: the new-look second line is playing as well as it has all playoffs, and this level of play has obviously contributed to three of the biggest wins the franchise has seen in two decades. But Nicklas Backstrom is an elite centerman, and when he’s good to go, he needs to slot in somewhere. At the same time, Barry Trotz has always been a guy who likes to stick to his guns, and there’s no doubt these guns are blazing, which has people close to the team pontificating...

What do you think? Drop your take in the comments below.