BROSSARD, Que. -- Lars Eller
has a pretty good sense of timing.
Actually, Eller's emergence as a key forward for the Montreal Canadiens
coming just as the player he was traded for -- St. Louis Blues
goalie Jaroslav Halak
-- returns to town for the first time has little do with Eller's own ability to rise to the occasion.
No, the main reason Eller's game has peaked at this particular point in time is largely because of a decision that was out of his hands.
When Canadiens general manager Pierre Gauthier replaced head coach Jacques Martin with Randy Cunneyworth
on an interim basis the morning of Dec. 17, Eller suddenly became a much larger part of the team's game plan.
"I'm playing more now," Eller said after Canadiens practice Monday. "I've always been a player growing up that played a lot of minutes, played when the game was on the line. So you want that responsibility, you want those big minutes, and that's when you'll start thriving more and more. That's the position I want to be in, and the more I play, the more confident I am in my game. I try to be good in my own end so (the coach) can be comfortable to put me out in any situation."
"I'm playing more now. I've always been a player growing up that played a lot of minutes, played when the game was on the line. So you want that responsibility, you want those big minutes, and that's when you'll start thriving more and more. That's the position I want to be in, and the more I play, the more confident I am in my game. I try to be good in my own end so (the coach) can be comfortable to put me out in any situation." -- Lars Eller
Eller established a new season high for ice time in his first game under Cunneyworth at 18:25, but then saw his usage slip to 11 minutes in each of the next two games before being a healthy scratch for a 4-0 loss in Winnipeg on Dec. 22.
Cunneyworth explained his decision to sit both Eller and defenseman P.K. Subban
by saying at the time that both young players needed to learn to "play the game the right way."
The very next game, Eller established a new season high in ice time with 19:17, scoring a goal in a 6-2 win in Ottawa, followed by a 4-goal, 5-point outburst at home against the Jets last week to give him 5 goals and 2 assists in the five games since he was benched.
"I think he was a good player before we sat him and he's a good player after we sat him," Cunneyworth said. "It makes him realize he has to be responsible to the team and what we're trying to get across to him."
More so than his points, Eller has become the key figure on Cunneyworth's top checking line. Centering Travis Moen
and Andrei Kostitsyn
, the trio was charged with shutting down Martin St. Louis
, Steven Stamkos
and Steve Downie
on Saturday night and did the job admirably, limiting Stamkos to a single shot on goal in a 3-1 win.
"I like playing against the other team's top line," Eller said. "Obviously they're really good when they have the puck, you have to really be aware, but our line is really good with that back pressure and P.K. and (Josh) Gorges have been really good helping us break the puck out of our own zone. A lot of times those first lines tend to not work that hard without the puck and maybe not be that good in their own end all the time. So the more we have the puck in their end, the better."
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Eller's line didn't get on the score sheet against Tampa, but its contribution to the win was not lost on anyone.
"He takes pride in it," Cunneyworth said. "He's shown his offensive side, but he's shown that he can shut down some of the top guys in the League. He'll have a lot of that responsibility (Tuesday) as well. St. Louis has three solid lines who can all do damage, so we'll have to be sharp."
As a result of his recent performances, Eller's profile in Montreal is rising quickly, but it wasn't always like this.
In the wake of the trade that sent Halak to St. Louis just a month after he had led the Canadiens from the No. 8 seed to the Eastern Conference Finals, the arrival of Eller in Montreal was met with a resounding, "Lars who?"
He and incumbent goaltender Carey Price
were looked upon by many fans in Montreal as the reasons why their hero Halak was traded. While Price won those people over with an incredible bounce-back season, Eller struggled through his rookie year.
Eller showed brief flashes of the offensive skills that convinced the Blues to take him with the No. 13 pick in the 2007 Draft, but he was unable to do it on a consistent basis, and a propensity for taking careless penalties led to many instances where Martin kept him on the bench.
"It is a tough spot to put a young player in," Price said. "When he came here our management viewed him as a project, not as an immediate result. He's showing that he can play very well, and he's still really young so he's got a lot of improving left to do."
On his first day of training camp with the Canadiens, Eller proclaimed that he was not there to replace Halak and that his lone goal was to get his own career started on the right foot. A year and a half later, he appears to have found that footing he sought.
Center - MTL
GOALS: 8 | ASST: 9 | PTS: 17
SOG: 63 | +/-: 5
Tuesday night's matchup against Halak and the Blues is one Eller insists he hasn't necessarily been looking forward to, only because he hasn't thought about it all that much. The date wasn't circled on his calendar, and he's not gaining any added motivation by facing the organization that traded him.
But still, a small part of him does understand what kind of occasion this will be for him to show just how far he's come since being the unknown commodity in one of the biggest Canadiens trades in recent memory.
"I'm going to approach it like it's any other game. There's going to be faces I know on the other side of the ice, but once we get going it's all about winning," he said. "It's going to be fun. I think I have enough motivation already, but sure, it wouldn't be a bad game to score one in."
Particularly considering the goalie upon whom he would be scoring.