Lars Eller stood in front of his locker and glanced over a box score that would not have looked so favorable without his influence.
At the top, it showed a 5-3 win for the Washington Capitals over the Philadelphia Flyers on Wednesday night in Capital One Arena. Further down, there were two assists for Eller, the Capitals’ puck-possessing, third-line center and a regular source of offense through the season’s first 50 games. An even closer look revealed Eller and Brett Connolly, who plays on the wing to Eller’s right, were on the ice for the Capitals’ first three goals.
“It looks good,” Eller said, a light smirk tugging at the sides of his mouth. He was soon asked why it’s easy to say the same about his game.
“I think just playing consistently in my spot,” Eller said while slowly folding the box score into a neat square. “I am playing center the whole time, and I am just feeling comfortable. I am just feeling good about my role, my game.”
That comfort can be attributed to Eller being in his second season with the franchise, but there is a more nuanced reason. While Capitals Coach Barry Trotz has often mixed up his lineup this season, matching different wingers with different centers on a sometimes game-to-game basis, he has rarely split up Eller and Connolly. The pair, brought in last season for secondary scoring depth, then put together on the third line, continues to provide just that for a team that is not getting enough from top-six forwards such as T.J. Oshie (four even-strength goals) and Andre Burakovsky (four goals in 25 games).
Alex Ovechkin leads the team and the NHL with 30 goals, but there is a significant drop-off after that. Connolly is tied with Evgeny Kuznetsov for second with 13 — two away from the career high he set while playing with Eller last season — and Eller has 10 goals and 15 assists. Eller and Connolly are also on the second power-play unit, which has scored four times in the past nine games.
“They seem to read off each other, and [Connolly] is a natural finisher on that line for a lot of reasons,” Trotz said Wednesday morning. “They’ve played a lot of games together. I try to pair guys for the most part and take two guys on each line who you think will work together, and you sort of move the other part around. Lars and Conno have done that the last two years, so they’ve been productive, and Lars’s line has carried us for a couple weeks now.”
Trotz’s lineup tinkering continued Wednesday: He sat forward Jakub Vrana as a healthy scratch and bumped Chandler Stephenson up to the third line with Eller and Connolly. That led to two Stephenson goals in 47 seconds of the second period, the first after Eller fired an odd-angle shot at the net and created a rebound for Stephenson to tap in. Trotz has even separated Ovechkin and Nicklas Backstrom in recent weeks, and he has cycled new parts around centers Backstrom, Kuznetsov and Jay Beagle. But he has not moved away from his pairing of Eller and Connolly, and he said after the win over the Flyers that they have, outside of Ovechkin, been the team’s best players as of late.
On Friday night, the Capitals face the Pittsburgh Penguins at PPG Paints Arena, which they have visited often in the second round of back-to-back playoff runs. The Penguins have not received the same kind of secondary scoring punch that Eller and Connolly have provided: There is a drop-off after Evgeni Malkin (26 goals), Phil Kessel (21), Sidney Crosby (17), Patric Hornqvist (15), Jake Guentzel (15) and Conor Sheary (12). After that, no player has more than six goals, and the Penguins (28-21-3), who have scored 14 times in their past three games (all home wins), are six points behind the Capitals in the Metropolitan Division.
The third-line production has helped the Capitals (30-15-5) to the best record in the division and the league’s eighth-best offense at 3.04 goals per game. And while it’s only the start of February, that’s the kind of factor that could swing a playoff series if more of the Capitals’ top-six forwards hit their stride.
“I think we just read off each other well,” Connolly said of Eller and himself. “I think Lars is really good in the corners, and we’re kind of getting that chemistry from last year. It took us a little bit this year to get it back, but we knew we were going to find it, and it’s been a lot of fun. He’s been a big part of getting my game going in the kind of direction I want it to be.”
They complement each other as feeder and scorer. Eller is a strong puck possessor and skilled passer, and Connolly needs no more than a split-second to fire a shot.
At this time last season, with Burakovsky on the left wing, the third line was boiling hot. In an 18-game stretch connecting January to February, the line combined for 22 goals and 17 assists. Burakovsky notched seven goals and eight assists in that span, Eller had seven and five, and Connolly had eight and four.
This season’s surge is not as flashy. Connolly has four goals in the past six games, and Eller finished January with five goals and three assists. But the pair is still waiting for a solidified part on the left wing; Connolly said Wednesday morning that he thought it could be Stephenson heading into that role for the next couple months. Stephenson then went out and scored twice against the Flyers, doubling his career goal total in less than a minute, to make his bid to stick in that role.
There is no telling whether Trotz will make Stephenson, Eller and Connolly his regular third line. But there are now two seasons’ worth of evidence that Eller and Connolly won’t be separated any time soon.
“He’s the one guy that I played with since I’ve been here, played with the most,” Eller said of Connolly. “Probably also the guy I’ve had the best chemistry with. We seem to work well together, so that’s probably the reason he hasn’t split us up.”
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