LAS VEGAS – Lars Eller is a man with a growing number of labels. His Washington Capitals teammates have taken to calling him The Tiger – the product of an inside joke that came out of a team party last season.
In these playoffs he’s being hailed by them as an unsung hero.
"He’s a guy who is kind of our secret weapon," said captain Alex Ovechkin. "It’s hard to play [against him] when he’s on top of his game and when he feels the puck, when he creates the moment for us. He was pretty big for us."
It’s not a stretch to suggest that he helped save their season on Wednesday night. Sure, the Capitals erased a 2-0 series deficit to Columbus in Round 1, but they knew deep down that it wouldn’t be a winning strategy against the Vegas Golden Knights in this Stanley Cup Final.
They absolutely needed Game 2 at T-Mobile Arena.
And they had to play a huge chunk of it without leading scorer Evgeny Kuznetsov, who was felled by a big open ice hit from Brayden McNabb which included some head contact and appeared to injure the star centre’s left arm or wrist.
That forced Barry Trotz to move Eller up the lineup, just as he did earlier this post-season when Nicklas Backstrom sat out four games against Pittsburgh. And just like he did in that second-round series, the Dane responded in a big way – scoring the tying goal almost immediately and setting up two others in what became a 3-2 Capitals victory.
"Some people have ways of digging down deeper. I think some people have ways of staying calm when the moment gets bigger," said teammate T.J. Oshie.
"Probably the best player in that stretch of the game – the middle part of the game," added defenceman Matt Niskanen. "He had the puck a lot. Confident with it, strong. He made some unreal plays."
It is here where we can point to a change in the Capitals from all those playoff failures gone by. Where once they were a group known for folding when adversity struck, now they find a way when the road gets hard.
Losing Kuznetsov is a massive blow. He had points in 11 straight games entering the night and is a key cog on their lethal power play. His status will be the dominant storyline heading into Game 3 on Saturday.
And yet, Washington summoned its best push in Game 2 when he rushed off the ice and went straight to the dressing room. Not only had the Caps had a sluggish start out of the gate, they were suddenly down one of their drivers.
"When one of your best players go down you play your hearts out," said Golden Knights forward Erik Haula.
Eller assumed Kuznetsov’s spot between Jakub Vrana and Oshie and slid into his power-play position. He made a great cross-crease pass to set up Ovechkin’s goal with the man advantage and found Brooks Orpik on the rush before he fired home an improbable winner – his first goal in more than 200 games dating back to Feb. 26, 2016.
Eller finished with 18:37 of ice time – three minutes more than he averaged in the regular season – and found himself taking three big defensive-zone faceoffs in the final minute. It was a huge performance under the circumstances.
"To get to this point of the playoffs as a team you have to be stronger than any one member," said goaltender Braden Holtby, who was excellent himself and made an eye-popping save on Alex Tuch with two minutes remaining. "Other guys have to step up and make different plays because you’re not going to have your full lineup the whole time. If you’re playing hard, that’s not going to happen. Obviously Kuzy, just like Nick, is irreplaceable as a single guy, but you can make up for it with other guys stepping up in different ways, a group collective effort."
It wasn’t easy.
The longest two minutes of the night for Eller came when he took a hooking penalty against Colin Miller early in the third period – putting his team down two men for 69 seconds. But Holtby held down the fort while facing a barrage of shots to preserve the one-goal lead.
After the final horn sounded, Backstrom stood in front of reporters wearing Eller’s No. 20 sweatshirt and joked: "He was so hot today so I wanted some power from him."
When Kuznetsov went down, he had no doubt that Eller would rise to the occasion.
"It’s great. I mean, it seems like he gets a different confidence when one of me or Kuzy goes out," said Backstrom. "He’s a great player and he’s got that confidence with the puck that he can make plays. That’s what we need. He had a hell of a game."
The Tiger was full of growl.
And with Kuznetsov’s status now in question, the Capitals are going to need more of it to win the Stanley Cup.