After Eller reached the crease, the puck shot by teammate Brett Connolly bounced off the leg of Columbus defender Zach Werenski and off the toe of Eller before slowly skidding into the net. Eller froze for a moment, looking almost stunned as his teammates climbed over the boards to celebrate a 3-2 victory in a must-win affair in Game 3 of this first-round Stanley Cup playoff series.
“It was a real ugly OT-winner goal,” Eller said. “I had a feeling it was going be one of those. It doesn’t make the win less sweet.”
Eller could not hear how quiet Nationwide Arena became in that moment because his teammates were drowning out the silence with exhausted screams on the ice, knowing they had somehow climbed back into this series after losing the first two games at home in overtime.
If Washington somehow goes on to advance, that sequence will be a pivotal turning point on a night when the Capitals struggled to generate scoring opportunities late in the game. Columbus had outshot Washington 17-12 in the third period and overtime, but the Capitals finally found some rhythm and recorded eight shots in the first nine minutes of the second extra period. Columbus had burned the Capitals in overtime of Game 1 with a game-winning goal by Artemi Panarin, then followed with a Game 2 overtime winner off a rebound by Matt Calvert.
Washington found itself on a three-on-two break midway through the second overtime Tuesday, led by Devante Smith-Pelly, with Connolly on the left wing and Eller on the right. Once Smith-Pelly dumped it to Connolly, Eller knew he might have an opportunity much like Calvert had for the Blue Jackets two nights earlier.
“We haven’t really had too many rushes like that, either,” Eller said. “I think we had a rush there that was a three-on-two. There hasn’t been a lot of that. It’s been a lot of zone time and five guys in front of the net the whole time in both ends. We’ve gotten burned a bit on some odd-man rush. Now it finally turned for us in that sequence.”
It will certainly go down as one of the top moments of Eller’s nine-year NHL career, but not for cosmetic reasons. This was the type of secondary score that Washington knew it would need as it entered the postseason, and it was the type of play that embodied Eller’s approach to the game.
“He’s a great player, a hard worker. I think a lot of guys in here are trying to find the back of the net and get some confidence,” said John Carlson, who scored a five-on-three goal Tuesday night. “I think he definitely deserved it.”
This series has now essentially spanned four games with each outing extending past regulation, but Eller wagered that the Blue Jackets felt much more tired than his group Tuesday night. He still looked exhausted and ready for time off Wednesday before the series resumes with Game 4 on Thursday. It would no surprise if that game went to overtime, either.
When Eller was asked if his team had something against winning in regulation, he simply replied: “No. I don’t know. It’s the playoffs. Weird things happen.”