Tuesday’s win over the New York Rangers sent the Senators through to the Eastern Conference final for the first time in a decade, and while no one is about to look past the Washington Capitals or Pittsburgh Penguins, one of whom will punch their ticket to the conference final Wednesday night, it puts Ottawa four wins away from reaching the Stanley Cup final for the second time in franchise history.
Entering the post-season, this isn’t a position anyone foresaw the Senators being in. Frankly, few would have seen Ottawa even pushing the Boston Bruins to anything more than a six-game series in the opening round. But the Senators not only pushed the Bruins to six games, they dispatched of Boston, too. That came before they fought their way past the heavily favored Rangers in the second round, and well before the Senators gave themselves the chance to shock the Eastern Conference again. And, make no mistake, Ottawa has been able to earn their way into the conference final because of one man and one man alone: Erik Karlsson.
Karlsson has long been heralded as one of the best defensemen in the entire NHL, and he planted his flag atop the league’s mountain of blueliners all the way back in 2011-12 when he captured the first of what is now two — and likely soon to be three — Norris Trophies. What he has managed to do this post-season, though, is flash the ability to be one of the game’s best playoff performers, and the truth is if the Conn Smythe Trophy were handed out today, no one would have a better case than Karlsson.
Yes, we’re well aware there’s still at least one month before the hardware is handed out and that to speak of Karlsson as a Conn Smythe winner would be to assume that the Senators can somehow pull off what would be a third-straight upset win by downing the Capitals or Penguins. But it’s hard not to entertain the thought that somehow, someway, Ottawa with Karlsson is a team that is not going to go away quietly and could quite possibly shock us all again.
Statistically, no one is surprised by what Karlsson has been able to do this post-season. After all, since that first Norris-winning campaign, Karlsson has amassed a whopping 385 points in 421 regular season games, putting him 69 points ahead of Brent Burns over that span. Karlsson ranks third in goals among rearguards with 99, but his 286 assists are an amazing 55 more than the next-best defender. That was helped along by Karlsson’s 66 assists in 2015-16, a year in which he became the first defender since Bobby Orr to lead the league in helpers.
But Karlsson is scoring at a pace that’s even unheard of for him. In 12 games, he has 13 points, putting him four clear of the next-best blueliner, and his 11 assists throughout the post-season put him on a pace that even eclipses the league-leading clip from the past campaign. It’s the way Karlsson has been scoring, and the timeliness of it all, that really puts him over the top, though.
Karlsson has always scored with some style, and that’s been no different in these playoffs. We’ve written about his saucer pass against the Boston Bruins at length, literally breaking down the science behind what was quite possibly the best pass anyone will make throughout the entire post-season. Plays such as that have become somewhat old hat for Karlsson, however, and it’s the substance behind his scoring that is really propelling the Senators.
As noted, 11 of Karlsson’s 13 points are assists, but the two times Ottawa’s captain has found twine this post-season, both were game-winners. And you may have seen another mind-blowing graphic floating around the Twittersphere following the Senators’ Game 6 win over the Rangers. The photo came via TSN’s post-game coverage and outlined how Karlsson has impacted every single Ottawa win this post-season. In the four wins over the Bruins, Karlsson was on the ice for two of the game-winning goals and assisted on the other two, with the primary assist on the Game 3 winner. Against the Rangers, Karlsson was responsible for the winners in Games 1 and 6, was on the ice for J-G Pageau’s overtime winner in Game 2 and had a secondary assist on the Game 5 winner in extra time.
That’s a remarkable amount of impact, to be sure, but Karlsson’s contributions go beyond helping out on the game winners. He had the primary assist on the game-tying goal midway through the third in Game 2 against Boston. In Game 2 against New York, Karlsson assisted on the game-tying goal with little more than a minute left. He also came up huge in Game 5 against the Rangers, assisting on the game-tying goal in the dying minutes. Ottawa won each of those games in overtime.
The thing is that it’s almost no wonder Karlsson has been involved or around every positive for the Senators this post-season because it has felt at times like he’s never left the ice. Karlsson skated nearly 29 minutes in Game 6 against the Rangers, which wouldn’t be all that odd had the contest gone to overtime, but the game ended in regulation. He was a mere 1:16 shy of being on ice for literally half the game. If the Senators were trailing at any point in Tuesday’s game, you can rest assured that Karlsson would have hit the half-hour mark.
Karlsson is used to monster minutes by now, though. During the regular season, he averaged nearly 27 minutes per night, and over the past five regular seasons, the only rearguard with a higher average ice time than Karlsson’s 27:31 is Ryan Suter, who sits alone with 28:19 per outing. But in the playoffs Karlsson has eclipsed even Suter’s unfathomable average ice time. In fact, as we approach the third round, Karlsson is four seconds shy of averaging 29 minutes per game. The crazy thing is his ice time is only set to go up as the games get that much more important, too.
The question invariably becomes about quality over quantity when a player starts seeing colossal minutes, however, and the quality of Karlsson’s two-way game has always been an issue for his detractors. But those naysayers should be silenced by now. Karlsson has more takeaways than any defenseman in these playoffs and ranks 12th with 24 blocked shots, numbers that will please traditionalists. For those who value underlying numbers, Karlsson boasts a Corsi for of 57.1 percent at 5-on-5, meaning the ice is tilting heavily in the Senators’ favor when coach Guy Boucher throws No. 65 over the boards. It’s also the fourth-best mark of all defensemen remaining in the post-season.
The real kicker, though, is we know Karlsson is doing it all on one good foot. He admitted following the first round — you know, the one where he posted six points in six games — that he played the entire series with two hairline fractures in his foot. You can be sure those fractures didn’t heal overnight, either, and that Karlsson has missed practices, been pulled from games and has been seen limping are all signs that he’s not at 100 percent. That will unfailingly be met with the retort that no one is entirely healthy at this time of the year. That much may be true, but we know without a shadow of a doubt that Karlsson isn’t. Despite that, he’s putting up an all-time great playoff performance through two rounds.
So, does Karlsson win the Conn Smythe? Well, that depends. It depends who the Senators are up against, if Craig Anderson can steal a few games, if Bobby Ryan can continue to pile up points or if there’s another magical game to come from the Pageaus or Smiths or Dzingels of the roster. It depends on a lot of things. The one thing it doesn’t depend on, though, is whether or not Karlsson shows up and plays like the world-beating defender he can be. The first two rounds have proven that’s almost a given every night, so the only thing standing between Karlsson and a Conn Smythe at this point looks to be a trip to the Stanley Cup final.
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