Over the past three weeks, Ottawa Senators defenseman Erik Karlsson has continued to look more and more valuable, which is saying a lot for one of inarguably the league's most indispensable players.
Ottawa holds a 3-1 series lead against the Boston Bruins in their first-round Eastern Conference series, and the Senators captain and star defenseman has played a leading role.
The Sens qualified for the Stanley Cup Playoffs with 98 points, putting themselves in a cushy position heading into the last quarter of the schedule. Over the their final 16 games of the season—a 6-6-4 stretch—Ottawa's vice grip on playoff spot began to slip, and Karlsson missed five of those games due to injury. It wasn't just a coincidence that Senators' slide coincided with Karlsson being sidelined.
Ottawa's peripherals when Karlsson is on and off the ice are staggering. In the regular season, Ottawa out-attempted their opponents 1,473-1,429 in score-adjusted situations, or a plus-43 margin. Without Karlsson, the Senator's were out-attempted by 280 shots.
So with that much gravity on his stick, and Senators' season in the balance, Karlsson toughed it out, playing the final two games of the regular season at less than 100 percent, and Ottawa got the requisite points (and help) to get into the postseason.
In a first-round matchup against the Bruins, Karlsson has drawn even more attention and the Senators have increasingly leaned on him. With Karlsson on the ice, Ottawa has taken 88 shot-attempts versus 58 against. Without Karlsson, 84 for and 114 against. Karlsson has played 41 percent of the Senators' 5-on-5 minutes and in that time Ottawa has generated 50 percent of its total shot-attempts. To say Karlsson is the Senators' maestro implies that he isn't simultaneously playing every instrument in the orchestra, which he is.
And this is a player who should, at worst, finish fourth in the Hart voting and second in the Norris. Yet with each fleeting end-to-end rush, first-star performance and home run pass (nothing to break down here, just an amazing display of hockey) Karlsson's value to his team in the public eye seems to be growing. Somehow.
How Karlsson does it is by being one of the league's most dynamic skaters, playmakers, and really, overall players. He is revolutionizing the way the position is played, an amalgamation of a defenseman, forward and perhaps a free safety.
And Karlsson has had to (in the name of narratives) overcome the perception of being bad in his own zone. The Senators were outscored at even-strength in the regular season (135 goals-for versus 141 against) but Karlsson personally came out in the green, a plus-six in that regard, along with Chris Wideman the two Ottawa defensemen with appreciable ice time and a positive goals-for percentage.
When he's on the ice, Karlsson is the Senators' quarterback in about every sense. The puck is generally glued to his stick while he gallops around the rink, his legs churning and the gears in his brain turning, plotting out his next move.
It's part of what has made Karlsson so effective in helping the Senators take a 3-1 series lead against the Bruins. The 26-year-old Swedish blueliner has been a lightning rod attracting attention, and as a conductor, making his teammates insulators in the offensive zone. While the Bruins key in on Karlsson, he's unlocked open space for his teammates.
This whole play gets started when Karlsson makes a good read coming on the ice for a line change, chasing down a Ryan Dzingel shot that went wide to the far side. From there, with the Bruins in pursuit of the loose puck, Karlsson goes point-to-point to Dion Phaneuf.
Phaneuf shoots wide, rimming the puck around to the opposite side, and again Karlsson is able to retrieve it and maintain possession. This time, though Bruins forward Riley Nash gets there first, Karlsson is able to pivot and initiate contact, putting his body between player and puck, and using the space between Nash and the blue line to escape.
Now with possession of the puck, Karlsson does something that's very hard to defend against: he freelances. Skating the puck across the line, Karlsson uses Phaneuf as a decoy to fake a pass. While he's still being chased by Nash, he skates right toward Dominic Moore. One of the two Bruins forwards should defend Phaneuf, but both are hypnotized by Karlsson. Slowly, the Bruins are being entranced with the puck carrier.
The next Bruins Karlsson skates out of position is Frank Vatrano. With Derick Brassard at the right faceoff dot, Vatrano gets caught cheating toward the middle of the ice, opening up Karlsson's passing lane. When Moore realizes neither he nor Nash is defending Phaneuf, he sags off the play, and the Bruins are completely out of sorts.
The pass itself wasn't all that easy. To ensure that Nash could not break up the play, Karlsson adds one last wrinkle, dragging the puck and forcing Nash to extend his stick, before Karlsson slid the puck past where it used to be.
Karlsson had an assist on the lone goal scored in Game 4, a 1-0 Senators victory that put Ottawa on the brink of advancing to the second round.
This is the moment Brassard slides the puck to Karlsson. Bobby Ryan, the eventual goal-scorer, isn't open as Karlsson cocks his stick in a shooting position.
When Karlsson contacts the puck, Ryan has skated in behind Drew Stafford. With the playing shifting across the zone, defenseman Charlie McAvoy is rolling off Viktor Stalberg at the top of the crease and toward Ryan. But his isn't close to the passing lane, and whether Karlsson identified that or not, enough pace on the puck will make it impossible for McAvoy to make a play.
Again, if not for the precision of Karlsson, none of this is possible. He wires a pass onto Ryan's stick, not only in stride, but just outside of McAvoy's right skate. Two inches to the left and the pass is in McAvoy's feet; two to the right and it handcuffs Ryan.