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Conference Final

Eller steps up for Capitals in Eastern Final with Backstrom out

Center has four points in first two games against Lightning

by Tom Gulitti @TomGulittiNHL / NHL.com Staff Writer

TAMPA -- Nicklas Backstrom has nothing to worry about.

His job as second-line center and power-play playmaker for the Washington Capitals will be waiting for him whenever he's ready to return from his right-hand injury.

But maybe Backstrom is beginning to feel a little like Wally Pipp to Lars Eller's Lou Gehrig watching how well Eller has played filling in for him.

 

[RELATED: Capitals score six in win against Lightning Complete Lightning vs. Capitals series coverage]

 

Eller scored the winning goal and had two assists in a 6-2 victory against the Tampa Bay Lightning in Game 2 of the Eastern Conference Final at Amalie Arena on Sunday.

Washington heads home for Game 3 on Tuesday (8 p.m. ET; NBCSN, CBC, SN, TVAS) with a 2-0 lead in the best-of-7 series and a 3-0 record without Backstrom.

Eller is a big reason the Capitals are two wins from their first Stanley Cup Final since 1998 and the second in their history. The 29-year-old had two goals and two assists in the first two games against the Lightning after helping shut down Pittsburgh Penguins center Evgeni Malkin in a 2-1 overtime win in Game 6 of the second round.

He has 11 points (five goals, six assists) in 14 games in the Stanley Cup Playoffs.

Video: WSH@TBL, Gm2: Eller redirects home Vrana's pass

"I like the playoffs," Eller said. "I like, I embrace when there's more on the line and the stakes are higher. I always like that, and I think that it brings out in the best in me, and now with Nick out, I've just been playing more minutes. The role is not that much different, I think. It's just I'm out there more."

Since being acquired in a trade from the Montreal Canadiens on June 24, 2016, for second-round picks in the 2017 and 2018 NHL Draft, Eller has found a comfort zone as Washington's third-line center behind Evgeny Kuznetsov and Backstrom. He liked the fit so much he decided to pass on the chance to become an unrestricted free agent July 1 and signed a five-year, $17.5 million contract with the Capitals on Feb. 10.

"I just feel at home on this team," Eller said. "I enjoy playing my role and I enjoy playing in [coach Barry Trotz's] system. There's just a lot of things that have come together for me, but playing in this system, you have a lot of freedom offensively and I have good support all around and I have a lot of stability. So it wasn't a hard decision for me wanting to stay in Washington."

Video: WSH@TBL, Gm1: Eller slams in rebound for PPG

After Backstrom was injured blocking a Justin Schultz shot in Game 5 of the second round against the Penguins, Eller stepped seamlessly on to the second line between rookie Jakub Vrana and T.J. Oshie. He led Capitals forwards in ice time for the second game in a row Sunday, playing 17:42 after he scored a power-play goal in 20:35 in a 4-2 win in Game 1 on Friday.

On his goal Sunday, Eller went to the net to redirect Vrana's pass out of the right corner past goaltender Andrei Vasilevskiy to give the Capitals a 3-2 lead with 1:02 remaining in the second period. He was in front of the net again when Kuznetsov's pass out of the right corner went in off Lightning defenseman Ryan McDonagh's stick for a power-play goal that made it 4-2 with 2.9 seconds left in the second.

"He's got all the qualities of a playoff type of player," Trotz said. "He's big, he's strong, he's got some experience, he's very competitive, he's got a good skill level, and he's playing that way. He's playing to his ability right now. We've had people step up. He's one of the guys that have stepped in a major way for us. I just think that he's a good hockey player.

"Maybe he doesn't get recognition through our center ice with [Kuznetsov] and [Backstrom]. … But we know how valuable he is. The guys in the room know how valuable he is."

Eller's teammates are also happy to see him get rewarded and receive some recognition for the hard work he's put in. He established NHL career highs during the regular season with 18 goals and 38 points in 81 games. Now with Backstrom out, the spotlight is on him, and he's excelling.

"We all love it," said forward Devante Smith-Pelly, whose goal on a 2-on-1 tied the game 2-2 at 2:50 of the second period. "He's been playing like that all year. Now, it's a little bit of a magnified offensive role. So, you see numbers being put up, but he's been great all year. He's just taking control of the opportunity."

***

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