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There’s going to be a time – and frankly, we might be already living in it – when doubting the greatness of Erik Karlsson is going to seem as pointlessly archaic as doubting the necessity of the telephone.
(To wit: “Karlsson doesn’t play defense” is basically the new “we have plenty of messenger boys,” which was how Sir William Preece dismissed the phone in 1878.)
Karlsson played 39 minutes and 33 seconds in the Ottawa Senators’ Game 7 double-overtime loss on Thursday night, all of it on a fractured foot, just like the 534 minutes and 27 seconds in total that he played in the 2017 Stanley Cup Playoffs. He’s the only player to cross 500 minutes in ice time in this postseason, averaging 28:07 per game.
“I’m going to go back to Ottawa and will reevaluate what I have to do to get healthy next year,” he said. “But at the end of the day, it doesn’t matter how you’re feeling at the end of the season.”
Karlsson had two assists in Game 7, and could have had about a dozen more. He brilliantly set up Mark Stone’s game-tying goal in the second period, using a short pass to spring him in the slot. In the third, he blasted a shot that rang off the post, then off the back of Matt Murray, and then right to Ryan Dzingel for another goal that answered a Penguins’ tally in short order.
He was all over every zone on the ice, dangerous on each of the 49 shifts he took in Game 7. One got the feeling that if the Senators were going to win this thing, the puck was going to be on Karlsson’s stick at some point during the sequence.
Instead, he was on the bench when Chris Kunitz’s floating shot found its way over Craig Anderson’s shoulder for the series-clincher.
“We lost to a better team, unfortunately,” said Karlsson after Game 7. “We did what we could, when we needed it the most. In the end, we came close, but not close enough.”
They came close because of Karlsson. With due respect to Craig Anderson’s goaltending heroics and Bobby Ryan’s offensive resurgence and Guy Boucher’s “bore them to death and/or unleash hell” coaching style, the Ottawa Senators were one goal away from the Stanley Cup Final because of one 27-year-old defenseman from Landsbro, Sweden.
He had 18 points in 19 games, including 15 at even strength, tied for most in the NHL postseason. His Corsi percentage (56.95) was the best in the postseason, for players that had more than 200 minutes of ice time.
Again, it’s comical to think that Karlsson ever had his doubters. He won the Norris twice, and had some clinging to the idea he was one dimensional. He makes countless defensive players every season, but that one turnover or that one time Auston Matthews dances by him on opening night get the spotlight.
All of it ignores the simple fact that, as coach Guy Boucher noted during this series: “Erik was our best defensive defenseman all year.”
There’s a lot we all got wrong about Ottawa, and one of the primary things was that Boucher’s system would somehow crush the creativity of Karlsson. Sure, his numbers dropped from last season – his even strength points fell by 14, for example – but the relationship between the two worked, to the point where Boucher saw Karlsson as a model on which other players should base their play.
“Erik has obviously terrific attributes that you can draw from,” he said. “And if you’re trying to be Erik, you’re probably not going in the right direction.”
The hockey world looked down its nose a bit at Ottawa in this series. Part of that was a desire to see the Pittsburgh Penguins and the Nashville Predators face off in what could be an highly competitive (and highly watched) Stanley Cup Final. And part of it was not wanting the Senators in that series, because of a perceived lack of interest in them nationally and their, at times, tedious style of hockey.
But Karlsson was a reason to root for them. To see what he did on that next, grander stage. To get another few games of his brilliance. To add his name to those of Lidstrom, Niedermayer, Stevens, Robinson and Orr as defensemen who were playoff MVPs.
Although, truth be told, his name should already be among them.
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