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Eller responds to benching with breakthrough season

by Chris Adamski

PITTSBURGH -- Lars Eller chuckles sheepishly.

The product of a country that, according to Eller, has all of 25 hockey rinks, the Montreal Canadiens center hesitates to acknowledge the very thing that perhaps established him as an NHL regular might just have been temporarily being told he's not one.

"Of course I would never say I needed to be benched," Eller finally says while he slouches back in his stall in the Canadiens locker room earlier this week.

"But sometimes, I guess, you have to hit your low point before you can go up."

The 13th pick in the 2007 NHL Draft, Eller, a native of Rodovre, Denmark, was poised to take the next step in his NHL career this season. And, by all indications, he has -- even if the first impression he gave new Canadiens coach Michel Therrien wasn't a good one.

Therrien made him a healthy scratch for the second and third games of the season in January.

"That," Eller said thoughtfully, "was my low point. But since then, it's only gone one way -- and that's up. [Therrien's] message certainly got through."

Eller's breakthrough season has mirrored that of the Canadiens as a whole -- and they're not mutually exclusive.

Montreal has rebounded from a season in which it had the worst record in the Eastern Conference to enjoy one in which it has one of the NHL's best through 32 games. Eller's sound, steady play centering the third line has been one of the reasons.

"He's a young player that we believe in, and he's playing really well," Therrien said. "He's upgraded his intensity and work ethic, and it's gotten the results we're seeing. He's a kid coming along and going in the right direction."

Eller's offensive statistics aren't gaudy (four goals, 12 assists), but his reliable play in a myriad of situations proves his growing value to the Canadiens (20-7-5). The 6-foot-2, 209-pound center has seen his average ice time increase to almost 15 minutes per game.

Eller is often used in a penalty-killing role, and he routinely gets work on the Canadiens' second power-play unit. Skilled and explosive enough to rank tied for second on the team with five multipoint games, Eller has become enough of a two-way presence that Therrien isn't afraid to use him to take a late-game faceoff in his own end. Tuesday against the Pittsburgh Penguins, for example, it wasn't uncommon for Eller to be on the ice when NHL leading scorer Sidney Crosby was.

"This year, I'm really a lot more comfortable in myself and in my role and in everything," Eller said. "The body feels good, and mentally I feel good. There's a lot of things coming together.

"There's still a lot of things I can do better and improve on, but I feel good about how things are going for me -- and especially in the way the team's playing too."

Therrien can come across as gruff -- but make no mistake, he's cerebral. Criticism of a player is a calculated attempt at motivation. Eller said Therrien "certainly has had a big hand" in his transformation into a regular on one of League's top success stories this season.

"I think he's a guy that he knows when to push the right buttons," Eller said of Therrien. "When to be hard on players, and when to give them a pat on the back."

Over his past 12 games, Eller has been a minus player once while averaging 17:38 of ice time heading into Tuesday. He has two goals and five assists over that span.

Lars Eller
Center - MTL
GOALS: 4 | ASST: 12 | PTS: 16
SOG: 62 | +/-: 5
Eller has begun recent games centering a line that features three players taken in the first round of the draft -- albeit 11 years apart.

While Eller was selected by the St. Louis Blues in 2007 (he was shipped to Montreal three years later as the centerpiece return for goalie Jaroslav Halak), Colby Armstrong was taken at No. 21 by Pittsburgh in 2001 and Alex Galchenyuk was the third pick last summer.

It's a line that has the pedigree to score, but also one Therrien has counted on to fill a checking role. In addition to Armstrong's experience, Eller's two-way profile is a significant reason why.

"He's a pretty strong guy, and he skates big," Galchenyuk said. "We've been playing pretty good together. We just have to contribute. We're getting great chances, but we have to capitalize on them."

Armstrong quipped that, in the transition game and the offensive zone, his job as the self-dubbed "grinder" part of the line is "get [Eller] the puck."

"He can skate, he's got good hands, and he makes things happen," Armstrong said.

And Eller's been doing it with much more regularity than he has at any point in his still-young NHL career. Eller will turn 24 on May 8. One of six Danish players in the League, Eller's career trajectory figures to keep pointing upward.

And it shouldn't even necessitate another message-sending healthy scratch from a tough-love coach, either.

"You can see how his confidence level has grown so much since the start of the year within his own personal game," Armstrong said. "He's carrying the puck, he's going through guys, he's winning battles. It might not show on the score sheet every night, but I think he's been playing real solid for us."

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