Ottawa Senators defenseman Erik Karlsson has been the talk of the Stanley Cup Playoffs, not only for the way he has dominated on the ice, but for the way he has pretty much put his team on his back and carried it through the first two rounds.
Finding a way to neutralize him and slow him down will almost certainly be the No. 1 focus for the Pittsburgh Penguins if they are going to advance to the Stanley Cup Final for a second year in a row.
Given the way Karlsson has played this postseason, stopping him is going to be easier said than done.
Entering play on Saturday Karlsson is the Senators’ leading scorer with 13 points in 12 games, while also playing just under 29 minutes per game. He did a lot of that while playing through a hairline fracture in his foot during the first-round against the Boston Bruins.
He has been arguably the best player in the playoffs and will almost certainly be the best individual player the Penguins have faced this postseason.
They were asked about that challenge on Saturday before Game 1 of the Eastern Conference Final in Pittsburgh.
“He is obviously a threat from anywhere on the ice,” said Penguins forward Bryan Rust on Saturday. “During the course of the playoffs he can make plays from behind his own net and end up with goals so he is a guy that is obviously very skilled and does what he does well. He is a guy we have to keep our eye on. We are not going to change our game very much but he is definitely a guy who has to be taken away. You just have to be aware of him.”
Coach Mike Sullivan was asked how he plans to deal with a defenseman that plays that many minutes from a matchup perspective. He said the best way to go about doing that is to make sure they make Karlsson and the Senators’ top offensive players expend their energy on defense.
“I don’t know that we’re going to look for a matchup against a defenseman,” said Sullivan. “As you said, he’s going to play half the game. So he’s going to be on the ice a lot. He’s a very good player. He’s one of the elite defensemen in the League. We’re certainly going to have to do our best to make it a hard game for him. I think the way our team does that most effectively is with our own puck possession, in forcing him and more of their offensive players to have to expend energy defending us. I think that’s an aspect of our game where I know our team can get to another level, and we’re going to try to bring that more consistently.”
The Penguins were one of the NHL’s best possession teams a year ago and continued that dominance through the postseason. But that style of play has not consistently been there this year, thanks in large part to the injury to their own superstar defenseman, Kris Letang. Through their first 12 games against Columbus and Washington the Penguins have managed to outshoot their opponents just two times. One of those games was their Game 7 win against the Capitals which might have been their best game of the playoffs and the first time they really started to get back to the identity they established last year.
Karlsson and the Senators are going to provide a different type of challenge from what the Penguins have seen through the first two rounds. The Senators have excelled this postseason by slowing the game down through the neutral zone and clogging up the middle of the ice.
“I think that’s how it is every year,” said Conor Sheary when asked about adapting to different styles as the playoffs go on.
“With each round and each series it’s a new challenge and every team is going to play a little different. From our first series to our second series it was the same way and it’s not different this time. We just have to focus on what we do best and if we do that I think we will be okay.”