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Forward Eller X-factor for Canadiens

by Arpon Basu /

The snow in Montreal has thawed, and so has Lars Eller's game.

The Montreal Canadiens center completed a regular season remarkably similar to the previous one in terms of his disappointing offensive production.

Now Eller is hoping he also can perform as well in the Stanley Cup Playoffs as he did last season. If he does, he could be the difference between an early exit and another deep run for the Canadiens.

Eller was ninth in scoring last season for the Canadiens with 26 points in 77 games but led their forwards with 13 points in 17 playoff games, helping to propel Montreal to the Eastern Conference Final.

This season, he finished ninth in scoring with 27 points in 76 games.

"I'm trying to look at it as a new challenge, but at the same time keeping in mind that I know I can play as good as I did last year," Eller said. "Just going in I know I can bring my best when I needed to."

His playoff performance last season convinced Canadiens general manager Marc Bergevin to sign Eller to a four-year, $14 million contract in the offseason. He was given more defensive responsibilities by coach Michel Therrien and responded well to the expanded role, but the inconsistent offensive production from last season continued.

Between Jan. 6 and March 5, Eller had one goal and one assist in 26 games.

But Eller got hot during the last month of the season, with four goals in his final six regular-season games, including an overtime goal last Thursday against the Detroit Red Wings. That gives Therrien hope the player he saw in last year's playoffs was back just in time for this postseason.

"Lars, it seems that this time of year is where he's at his best," Therrien said Thursday. "We all remember him in the playoffs last year; he was one of the good players we had and one of the reasons why we had such good playoffs. It's nice to see that he's playing with that same confidence.

"The No. 1 thing for him is he knows he's got to compete, and this is what he's doing right now."

Eller can be a valuable player for the Canadiens even if he's not producing offensively. He's a strong skater with good size (6-foot-2, 209 pounds) who Therrien trusts to face top opposition and handle defensive-zone faceoffs. His offensive struggles partly can be explained by his defensive responsibilities, the fact he has not had consistent linemates all season and by his lack of ice time on the power play.

But Eller has the ability to produce, like he showed in the playoffs last season and recently this season. For a team has serious trouble scoring, Eller rediscovering his offensive touch would be a welcome boost.

"It's like in golf, you know you can make that shot because you've done it before," Eller said. "That's the approach I have. I know it's not going to happen by itself. You have to be in the right mental state of mind, you need to be hungry, all those things. But I know I can bring my best because I've done it before."

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