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Capitals playing cool, consistent in playoff push

Enjoying his best season, Eller embodies Washington's no-pressure attitude despite recent postseason downfalls

by Dave Stubbs @Dave_Stubbs / Columnist

MONTREAL -- Lars Eller knows why he's having the best season of his NHL career with the Washington Capitals.

"Being comfortable in my role and having found a home. But the bottom line is, I'm having fun," Eller said following a 6-4 win against the Montreal Canadiens at Bell Centre on Saturday.

Through 75 games this season, the third-line Capitals center has 37 points with an NHL career-high 17 goals.

Eller. 28, has had better games this season than in the victory against the Canadiens, the team for which he played his first six full NHL seasons from 2010-11 through 2015-16. On Saturday, he had one shot on goal, two hits, was minus-2 and went 22 percent on face-offs, two draws won on nine attempts.

But the bigger picture, the one that mattered, saw the Capitals put another two precious points on the board in the waning days of the regular season. Washington's third straight win, their seventh in their past eight games, solidified their lead in the Metropolitan Division, pushing them five points ahead of the Pittsburgh Penguins with seven games left on their Stanley Cup Playoff-bound schedule.

Video: WSH@NYI: Eller fires home wrist shot from the circle

With the Penguins in pursuit, Eller and everyone in the Capitals organization knows the elephant in the room is Washington's underachieving playoff performance in recent years. The past three seasons, the Capitals were eliminated in the Eastern Conference Second Round; they were bounced by the Penguins the past two seasons despite being the NHL's best regular-season team in 2016-17 (55-19-8) and 2015-16 (56-18-8).

"People always bring that up when we get to the playoffs," Eller said with a shrug. "The last two years we really ran away with it in the regular season and everybody expected us to kind of… well, we were the favorites. This year, we haven't been running away with it the same way and other teams are being talked about as the favorites. I don't think we really have that pressure on us this year. We still want to win as badly as ever and I think we have the experience in this room to make it happen."

Eller has found a clearly defined role in Washington, a far cry from what he experienced in Montreal, where he was in a revolving door of linemates, bounced from center to wing, often seemingly out of favor with coach Michel Therrien.

His trade to the Capitals on June 24, 2016 was nothing less than a rebirth. The native of Rodovre, Denmark was dealt by the Canadiens during the 2016 NHL Draft for Washington's second-round picks in 2017 (Finnish center Joni Ikonen) and 2018.

In Washington, Eller has found more certainty under coach Barry Trotz and has given the Capitals excellent strength down the middle behind fellow centers Evgeny Kuznetsov and Nicklas Backstrom. On Feb. 10, five months before he was eligible to become an unrestricted free agent, the Capitals rewarded him with a five-year contract.

Video: WSH@SJS: Eller scores 100th career goal on empty net

"We're very happy in Washington," Eller said of himself, his wife Julie, and their young daughter Sophia. "I don't think I could have ended up in a better place. I'm very fortunate."

Eller said he's "grown a lot" in his two years in Washington, having played in Montreal at the level he believed he was capable of for periods of time.

"But here I've been growing more into the player that I can be, consistently," he said. "I've found a home, a fit."

That consistency and sense of security are paying dividends.

"When things are going good, that helps. In a perfect world, you want to stay with the same guys in the same role," said Eller, who on Saturday centered wings Brett Connolly and Jakub Vrana. "I didn't always have that situation (in Montreal). For me in Washington, there's been as much stability as you can get in this business, so that's probably helped.

"Barry gives us a lot of freedom to do whatever we want offensively as long as you compete and work hard and follow the system defensively. There's not a lot of holding you back. I'm having fun on the power-play (three of his goals have been scored on the man-advantage)… just a lot of things that have come together. I feel like I'm playing at the level that I'm capable of."

Video: TBL@WSH: Eller scores PPG on blistering one-timer

With the playoffs looming, the task at hand is understood by everyone in the dressing room. Nothing needs to be said. Eller's next postseason game will be his 51st -- his 14th with the Capitals -- having played as deep as the Easterrn Conference Final with the Canadiens in 2013-14.

"We had some good teams in Montreal, they have a really strong winning culture here, as well," he said. "We have a lot of veterans in Washington, a lot of experience and there's a lot of confidence in this room.

"The things that make the difference when you get to a Game 6 or 7 are really not much, they're so small. We just have to get through that barrier, take that little next step up the ladder."

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