MONTREAL – Lars Eller earned first star honors long before he rifled the shootout-winner past Robin Lehner on Wednesday night.
When Eller is on, there’s not much that can stand in his way. Building confidence every time he’s hit the ice this year, there’s no question the 23-year-old is playing the best hockey of his career. Showcasing some of the offensive prowess that lured the Blues into drafting him 13th overall in 2007, Eller opened the scoring for the Habs on his third shift of the night, before spending the next 57 minutes dominating the play at both ends of the ice.
By the time he returned to toss pucks into the crowd as the game’s first star, Eller had scored his fourth goal of the campaign, amassed a game-high seven shots and given the Canadiens their second shootout win of the season.
“You can feel after a couple of shifts if it’s going to be a good night. Tonight was one of those,” admitted Eller, who beat Lehner on his first shootout attempt of the season. “I’ve been waiting for that chance. You want to be in those situations where the game is on the line and you have the chance to win it for your team. You want that responsibility.
“It always feels good to make the difference at the end,” he added. “Two points is what we wanted and that’s what we got. I feel pretty good. It’s hard not to when you’re winning; the whole team is feeling good.”
In addition to leading the Habs in shorthanded ice time on Wednesday with 3:30 on the penalty kill, the gritty two-way forward also registered a game-high two takeaways – including one in the waning minutes that led to Alex Galchenyuk ringing a shot off the crossbar. His play during regulation time earned Eller a few extra shifts in overtime before eventually getting the call to anchor the shootout order.
“Lars was phenomenal tonight,” confirmed Michel Therrien. “He was always on the puck, he was skating really well and he was making good decisions. He’s improving and he’s having fun. I really liked the way he played with Alex; they’re playing so well together.”
Having played alongside a revolving door of linemates since the season began, Eller has managed to create some quick chemistry with Galchenyuk and Gabriel Dumont in their two games together so far.
“It’s not just me; they’re making space for me and opening up free ice,” explained Eller of his impressive rookie linemates. “We’re really working well as a unit. [Gabriel] is playing the right way. He’s hitting, he’s bringing energy, he’s winning faceoffs and doing everything you expect from him. And Alex brings energy as usual and makes plays out of nowhere like he usually does. Today worked well and I’m sure we can continue to do it.”
After downing the Hurricanes and coming from behind to beat the Lightning last week and dominating the Panthers in Sunrise on Sunday night, the Habs registered a fourth-straight win to maintain their stranglehold on the No.1 spot in the East.
“It’s a big strength for this team that we can win all types of games; we can defend leads, we can catch up if we’re behind, we can win in overtime or shootouts,” explained Eller. “It’s good for the team’s confidence.”
Eller’s own confidence has been increasing as quickly as the number of notches in the team’s win column this year, and the 6-foot-2 forward is nowhere near finished his ascent to the top of the Canadiens’ depth chart.
“I feel it’s been going one way for me and that’s up,” he shared. “All season I’ve been feeling pretty confident and I’m sure I can keep getting better. Next game I want to be better than I was tonight.”
Shauna Denis is a writer for canadiens.com.
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