When Brayden McNabb leveled Evgeny Kuznetsov along the boards in the first period of Game 2 in the Stanley Cup Final, most of the immediate focus was on the fact he lead with his elbow and seemed to catch Kuznetsov with it. But the worst part of it was McNabb’s back crunching Kuznetsov’s wrist, which sent the leading playoff scorer running down the tunnel and forcing him from the game.
We don’t yet know the extent of Kuznetsov’s injury, but since he was listed as questionable to return by the Capitals, we can probably assume he will play in the series again at some point. But in the meantime, this is a gigantic loss for Washington.
Luckily, they have already managed to survive a series in which they were without Nicklas Backstrom for a large portion and Lars Eller stepped up in a big way, scoring five points in the four games Backstrom missed. Eller continued that trend in Game 2, scoring once and being the primary setup man on the two other Washington goals.
Eller played a spectacular game by every measure, with a +9.26 relative Corsi, winning 63 per cent of his faceoffs in a game where his teammates won just 34.7 per cent of them, and playing the third-most minutes among Capitals forwards at 18:37, plus the three primary points.
The three-point night brings Eller to 17 points in 21 games this post-season, and eight of those points came in the five games when Washington was without one of its two best centres. That’s an interesting anecdote to be sure, but what’s even more surprising than Eller stepping up when needed is how strong he’s been through the entire playoffs.
While playing in a (mostly) checking role, Eller has been among the league’s elite scoring chance producers in the playoffs, and when you look at totals instead of pro-rated stats, the only player left in the playoffs who has produced more scoring chances this year is Alex Ovechkin.
That’s some pretty elite company to be keeping for a player of Eller’s caliber. At the same time, per 20 minutes played, he’s 15th in successful passes to the slot and 14th in successful passes off the rush, third in scoring chances off the rush, third in scoring chances off rebounds, seventh in scoring chances generated for his teammates, and second in successful transition plays, trailing only Kuznetsov.
All told, Eller has been an absolute beast in these playoffs both offensively and in transition. With the puck on Eller’s stick the Capitals have been more successful than with almost any other player controlling it, which is sort of absurd for a 29-year-old third-line centre who has had fairly limited offensive output throughout his career, but these are the kinds of stories that make the playoffs so special.
If anyone can fill the massive gap left by the absence of Kuznetsov in Washington, Eller has been giving us evidence all playoff long that he’s the guy to do it. It’s no wonder the Capitals call him “Tiger.”
If the Capitals are faced with not having Kuznetsov for an extended period in this series, they’re going to need Eller to give this kind of effort every night, even if it doesn’t come along with three points. The question is whether he can maintain this level of intensity, while keeping his penalties down, as taking minors has been a consistent problem for him in his career.
Either way, this series just got another interesting storyline to watch, as if it didn’t have enough already.