In the lead up to the Stanley Cup Final, the idea of “riding the hot goalie” is always a prominent narrative in discussing which teams will make it to the final destination. While we’ve already covered the Golden Knights’ Marc-André Fleury with regard to that, another narrative that tend to be overlooked at times along the way, shows that a team’s overall depth matters the most during the grind of the playoffs.
A team may have a shootout specialist for the regular season, but when it comes time for the playoffs, it’s nothing but continuous overtime. While it is expected that a team’s stars lead the ways, teams simply don’t win without everybody chipping in at least a little bit.
In Game 1 of the Stanley Cup Final, Vegas, depth was the key as Ryan Reaves and Tomáš Nosek led the Knights to victory. In Game 2, Brooks Orpik, of all people, scored his first goal since February 26, 2016, and Lars Eller was a dynamo in comparison to his scoreless -3 Game 1 performance. While plenty of attention has been rightfully focused on the Capitals big guns like Alexander Ovechkin, Nicklas Bäckström, and Evgeny Kuznetsov, it is depth players like Eller that the Capitals need to be factors as unsung heroes if they want to win their first Stanley Cup.
Earlier in the playoffs, Bäckström went down with a hand injury against the Pittsburgh Penguins late during Game 5 of that series after blocking a shot. Bäckström would go on to miss the decisive Game 6 of that series and subsequently the first three games against the Tampa Bay Lightning during the Eastern Conference Finals.
In Game 5, Lars Eller chipped in two points, with one goal and one assist, and a +3 rating in about 16:22 of ice time for such key game of the series. While his goal was a clear insurance goal, the secondary assist came on the Capital’s crucial second goal in the first period, which would be vital before the game’s third period swing after the Penguins initially took the lead back before the second period was over with.
Bäckström missing the next three Lightning games, however, is where Lars Eller really stepped it up. With a slight increase in his ice time in having to be the next man up, Eller spread his production over the course of the three games, ending with five points in those three games (before adding an assist in both Game 5 and the pivotal Game 7). With an insurance goal in Game 1, and the game-winning goal in Game 2, Eller played a critical part in the Capitals jumping out to an early series lead, which was crucial in them advancing to the Stanley Cup Final. Helping create André Burakovsky’s first Game 7 goal was important for the Capitals’ momentum, and Eller’s ability to slide comfortably back into his role with Bäckström playing again was also a key.
In the lead up to Game 3 of the Stanley Cup Final, the electric Evgeny Kuznetsov has the classic NHL “undisclosed upper body” injury label after a hit from Vegas’ Brayden McNabb knocked him out of the Capitals’ win in Game 2. He left the game holding his forearm, and whether he is able to play or not in this series, it will be up to Eller to once again play a pivotal role for the Capitals.
With a potential wrist or forearm injury, even just a loss of effectiveness for a potential Conn Smythe winner is a dangerous situation for the Capitals, as Kuznetsov currently leads all players in the playoffs in points, and is a key part of the Washington power play.
In Game 2, Eller was the clear best skater for the Capitals, holding down the fort due to an increase in ice time with Chandler Stephenson and Jay Beagle as his linemates. Eller played a role in all three Capitals goals, and if not for some outstanding work in net by Braden Holtby, nearly single-handedly prevented the game from heading to overtime.
Lars Eller scored the first goal for the Capitals to tie the game at 1-1, but didn’t stop there in helping replace Kuznetsov. He took over Kuznetsov’s top power play role, and from Kuznetsov’s normal place in the rotation, he fed a pass to Alexander Ovechkin to give Washington the 2-1 lead.
Eller was so on white-hot compared to a pretty dismal Game 1 performance, that he managed to set Brooks Orpik up perfectly for what would become the game-winning goal. To stress how little Orpik scores goals, this was his first goal in 220 games and his first playoff goal since April 21, 2014, when he was still a member of the Pittsburgh Penguins.
With the possibility of Kuznetsov missing time in the Stanley Cup Final, the Capitals need contributions reminiscent of Game 2 from players like Eller, rather than performances like Game 1, where he had one shot and a -3 rating in 15:22 of ice time. Eller has stepped up throughout these playoffs, and with a likely weakened Kuznetsov, his number should be called upon to continue to do so. In 21 playoff games this year, Eller has managed 17 points, expanding on regular season success that saw him put up a career-best 18 goals and 38 points.
He has raised his shooting percentage from 11.2% in the regular season to 13% in the playoffs, and may need to continue to do so to help ease the burden on players like T.J. Oshie, Nicklas Bäckström, and Alexander Ovechkin. While the spotlight will remain on Alexander Ovechkin, it is the players around him that may decide if he finally wins his first Stanley Cup.