By Stu Hackel
It's been a miserable season in the birthplace of the NHL (as we've noted here and here, and SI's Michael Farber wrote about here), especially when the Canadiens play on home ice. But Lars Eller's four-goal game on Wednesday night eased Montreal's pain a little.
Eller conducted his prolonged First Star curtain call following the Habs 7-3 win over Winnipeg -- during which he tossed four pucks into the stands, repeatedly applauded the Bell Centre crowd, exhorted the fans to get louder, and then leaped to touch an overhang while exiting -- without a trace of self-aggrandizement. It was a joy to behold and reminds us why, despite its various blemishes, we love this game.
Other than perhaps in his native Denmark, Eller is hardly famous outside of Montreal, but that might be because he's only in his second full NHL season. Until last night, his biggest claim to fame was being traded by the St. Louis Blues for Habs playoff hero Jaroslav Halak in the summer of 2009, which at the time seemed unthinkable. "Lars who?" was the general and angry reaction.
Fans of Halak and the Canadiens' other goalie, Carey Price, waged a long and loud local phone-in show/internet comment war over the relative strengths of each netminder that continued even after Halak was shipped west.
Eller also furrowed some foreheads earlier this season when he confessed after a game that he didn't know the Maple Leafs had switched goalies at the start of the second period.
But Eller, only 22, has always been regarded as an outstanding skater with excellent defensive instincts, very good puck skills, and a sharp mind for the game. He regularly matches up against the opposition's top line. He could well be on his way to developing as one of the best two-way forwards in the NHL, but he hasn't always displayed a natural scorer's touch. He did on Wednesday night with his first goal, following a Kyle Wellwood turnover.
Eller didn't need to be a sharpshooter on his second and third goals, just an alert linemate. First, he went to the net to finish this great passing play with Andrei Kostitsyn and Travis Moen...
(According to one fan watching from Toronto, a Bell Centre partisan tossed something other than a hat during the celebration).
The coup de grace came on a penalty shot, a call some would question since all Jets defenseman Ron Hainsey did was get his stick into Eller's hands as Eller broke in alone on backup goalie Chris Mason. But those things get called all the time, and Eller was instructed to go to center ice with the puck and have at it.
This time, Eller said afterward, he knew that the goalie had been replaced and figured he'd try the spin-o-rama move on the cold netminder. As regular readers know, I'm no fan of these trick penalty shot/shootout moves, and the rules as amended only a few years ago to permit them. But the crowds do love them.
Moulson's performance didn't really spark an Islanders turnaround, as they still languish in Eastern Conference's 14th spot. The Canadiens are only three points ahead of New York, in 13th, so Eller's great night is hardly a guarantee that the Canadiens' fortunes will improve. But, as Phillippe Cantin wrote in La Presse, " For the first time this season, we felt a real excitement in the great amphitheatre."
And after the game, the Habs embattled unilingual coach Randy Cunneyworth, who strangely didn't use Eller during a late power play so Eller could shoot for five, used the language of the province's majority as he began his press conference, saying, "Je suis très content pour Lars!"
The media erupted in hearty laughter and Cunneyworth responded, "Merci beaucoup."
For one night, at least, good times returned to Montreal.