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Etching his name into the history books, Lars Eller has found his team in the Capitals

by Ben Raby @benraby31 / WashingtonCaps.com

Every now and then the question is posed to Lars Eller. He never tires from having to answer it.

"It's a pretty good one," he says.

Eller is responsible for two of the biggest goals in Capitals history. His double overtime game-winner in Game 3 against Columbus essentially saved the Capitals' 2018 season (Washington trailed the series 2-0 before Eller secured the Game 3 win). Six weeks later, Eller had the series-clinching goal as the Capitals rallied to beat Vegas in Game 5 of the Stanley Cup.

So, now the question: Which goal was bigger?

"The goal in Columbus was probably more important," Eller admits. "But the goal in Vegas felt better. That's as good as I can put it."

As the first player in franchise history to score a Cup clinching goal, Eller will always have a special place in Capitals lore. But according to Eller, it's a two-way street. The Capitals, he says, will forever hold a special place in his own personal hockey odyssey.

"Here in Washington," he says, "I think I have found the best version of myself."

The Capitals acquired Eller in a draft-day deal with the Montreal Canadiens in 2016. The trade offered some welcome stability both for the team and the player.

For nearly a decade, the Capitals had been looking to add depth down the middle. From free agents Brendan Morrison, Mikhail Grabovski and Mike Richards to trade acquisitions Eric Belanger, Jason Arnott and Mike Ribeiro, center depth frequently topped the Capitals' shopping list.

But with Nicklas Backstrom leading the way, and Evgeny Kuznetsov having established himself as a bonafide star by 2016, the addition of Eller provided Washington with the deepest trio of centermen in the Alex Ovechkin era.

For Eller, after years spent moving up and down a fluid Canadiens' depth chart, the Capitals offered a clearly defined role. Now in his fourth season in Washington, Eller, 29, has emerged as a fixture as the Capitals' third-line center.

"It makes a big difference," Eller says of the predictability of his workload.

Every day, for the last three years, Eller has come to work, well aware of his responsibilities on a given night. This in turn has allowed him to play some of the best hockey of his career.

"I've raised my game," he says. "I got a little bit more productive, got more consistent in my game and I've had more joy playing than I've ever had."

The 2016 trade to Washington marked the second time in Eller's career he had been dealt. Originally drafted 13th overall by the St. Louis Blues in 2007, Eller was traded to Montreal in 2010 for goaltender Jaroslav Halak.

Months earlier, Halak had led the Canadiens to postseason upsets of the Presidents' Trophy winning Capitals and the defending Stanley Cup champion Penguins. At the time, Halak was the most popular athlete in Montreal. Eller was a 21-year-old prospect with seven games of NHL experience.

"There was a lot of buzz around the trade and I had to answer a lot of questions," Eller recalls.

"I knew there were a lot of expectations. But I had even higher expectations for myself- maybe even a little too high at the beginning. That maybe took the joy away from my game, which, in that place, hurt my performance at times."

Eller spent six seasons in Montreal with a trip to the 2014 Eastern Conference Final ranking among his highlights. Despite emerging as a fulltime NHLer in Montreal and embracing the opportunity to play for an Original-6 franchise, Eller admits he battled external and internal pressures.

"At times," he says, "I wasn't in a good place."

Playing in Montreal in his early-mid 20s, Eller often wondered what more he could be doing or where he fit within the Canadiens' lineup. The trade to Washington offered an unexpected, yet welcome, fresh start.

"It was absolutely the right time for me to move on," he says.

"Looking back, maybe a few years earlier would have been better. But I wanted to succeed in Montreal while I was there. I didn't want to quit. That wasn't my intention. But looking at it now, I was fighting an uphill battle against myself and other things too. So, sometimes it's good when that decision is made for you and I came into a better situation probably for myself personally."

In Washington, Eller says he is comfortable with his role and the expectations the organization has for him. In February 2018, months before emerging as a playoff hero, Eller signed a five-year extension that keeps him tied to the Capitals through 2023.

"I really appreciate being part of this organization," he says. "We have so many great players and it's a good team where the winning culture is so strong."

Affectionately known as The Tiger in Washington, Eller has found a home, both on and off the ice. After spending much of the 2018 offseason enjoying the perks that came with a Stanley Cup title, he spent a good chunk of last summer training in northern Virginia.

"He's really been on top of his game since the summer," says head coach Todd Reirden. He was here early. I think he's had a really good mindset and it's carried over."

Eller also appreciates that in Backstrom and Kuznetsov, he is playing behind a pair of All-Star caliber centers

"It's been more consistent here. I'm perfectly fine playing behind [Backstrom and Kuznetsov] and when I get the chance to move up, I've shown that I can play more minutes. You want to play for a Cup contending team and, yes, maybe on some other teams I'd play top-six more regularly, but I'm very happy with the situation here."

While Eller has taken ownership of the third-line center role, he has also shown a knack for elevating his play in spurts when either Backstrom or Kuznetsov have been sidelined and he's been called upon to fill the void.

Over the last two seasons, Eller has produced nine points in 10 games when either Backstrom or Kuznetsov has been out. When Backstrom missed time in the 2018 playoffs, Eller came through with three goals and seven points in five games stretching from Game 5 against Pittsburgh through Game 3 of the East Final against Tampa Bay.

"When I get put in that situation," Eller says, "I know I can raise my game and produce more when given that responsibility because I've done it in the past. Sometimes, it's also about having really good chemistry with whoever you're playing with. It's a luxury here that the core players have been together for so long. I'm really happy to be part of that group now.

 

STANLEY CUP SOUVENIR:  

Eller's Cup-clinging goal ranks among the biggest in franchise history. But what ever happened to the puck from that produced the game-winning goal? Eller shared the details in the Q and A below:

Q: DO YOU HAVE THE VEGAS PUCK?

A: Yes, I do. I do. I have a good story to that. I have it at home and I'll frame it soon.

Q: HOME IN DENMARK?

A: No, here in Wash.

Q: SO WHAT'S THE STORY?

A: The story is, Tony Robbins tracked down the puck and got it for me.

Q: WHAT DO YOU MEAN 'TRACKED IT DOWN'?

A: So apparently, this is the version that I got, after I scored the goal, one of the Vegas players shot the puck up into the stands and some fan caught it. The camera showed this fan that caught it and somehow Tony or one of his associates tracked this person down and bought the puck from this guy for an unknown amount.

Q: IT WAS THE NIGHT OF? THAT'S A QUICK TURNAROUND...

A: I don't know if the transaction happened that night, but I didn't get the call from Tony until weeks later. It might have taken him a little while, I'm not sure.

Q: DID YOU KNOW THIS WAS IN THE WORKS OR DID YOU JUST GET A RANDOM CALL?

A: I got a random call from Ted [Leonsis] that summer. He said 'I'm sitting here with Tony and he has something to tell you.' So, it was an unbelievable gesture and effort that he put into doing something special for me and I'm forever grateful for that

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