Two games is too small a sample size to justify much hyperbole, but zoom out to include the tail end of last year, and there’s a hint of a trend.
In fact, it’s a steep, upward curve; it describes the progression of the data point otherwise known as Lars Eller.
The Montreal Canadiens centre was named the NHL’s second star of the week on Monday, and with three goals and a pair of assists to start the 2013-14 season, there’s little doubt he merits the honour.
The 24-year-old Dane’s hot start should settle any lingering questions as to whether the devastating – and illegal – hit he took from Ottawa Senators defenceman Eric Gryba in the playoffs last spring, and the concussion it caused, would have any long-lasting effects.
They haven’t, at least not to this point.
Eller was arguably the Habs’ best forward over the final month of the last regular season – he notched 13 points in 12 games, and his defensive and possession stats demonstrated he was the team’s most potent two-way threat.
As Montreal prepares to embark on a road swing to Western Canada, that’s still true.
So has the former first-round draft choice from 2007, picked up from the St. Louis Blues in exchange for erstwhile playoff goaltending hero Jaroslav Halak, suddenly figured out this whole NHL scoring thing?
Quite possibly, and even if he has a ways to go before reaching his full potential (these are Eller’s words), he now has a fuller grasp of how to get there.
“I got to learn myself better [last season], what buttons to push all the time. There’s a physical part to it in the off-season, and there’s certainly a big mental part too. I said that last year, too, a lot of it is psychological, trusting yourself, confidence, challenging yourself, knowing what you can do,” he said. “And, you know, your linemates help you out, the team’s winning games. There’s a lot of things.”
Eller played the bulk of last season with supremely talented teenager Alex Galchenyuk. The two were reunited with Calder Memorial Trophy finalist Brendan Gallagher toward the end of the campaign and have stuck together throughout training camp and the opening stages of the 2013-14 campaign.
Though the trio played sheltered minutes last season – the bulk of their shifts started in the offensive zone, and they saw a lot of the opposing team’s second- and third-pairing defencemen – there are early indications they’ll be entrusted with heavier, harder minutes this year.
They’ll also be playing a whole lot more on the power play, if the first week is any indication.
Eller said during training camp that he hoped his line could play first-line minutes, its early effectiveness – a combined 12 points and team-leading plus-8 – and an injury to last season’s leading scorer, Max Pacioretty, has cracked the door to that possibility.
A nine-day road swing through Calgary (where the Habs have lost six in a row), Edmonton, Vancouver and Winnipeg will be a chance to kick it open.
Gallagher, who scored in both of Montreal’s games last week, said his, Galchenyuk’s and Eller’s understanding partly comes from the fact all three are young – no one has any status to guard, each is free to play his game without deferring to the other.
“We all talk. Every time we come off the ice, we’re chatting and trying to figure things out. As we’ve gone through training camp, that’s helped us, we feel more and more comfortable. That’s why we feel we’re an effective line right now: We can all do what each of us does well,” said the Edmonton-born, Vancouver-raised Gallagher, who has had to deplete his bank account a little to score tickets for friends and family out west.
What Gallagher does well is grind, crowd the net and shoot, what the other two are good at – pretty much everything that requires a really high skill level.
“Obviously, [Galchenyuk] is awesome. You can see just how composed he is with the puck, he’s always looking to make the right play. And [Eller], as he goes, our line goes,” Gallagher said.
Head coach Michel Therrien said his exhortations that Eller needed to be more competitive have been heeded, and the man himself credits both his coach and the Habs’ sports psychologist, Sylvain Guimond, with helping him develop a more combative outlook.
“It’s two different worlds from last season to now,” Eller said.