BRIGHTON -- At the outset of the Bruins-Senators playoff series, it was a given that Ottawa defenseman and two-time Norris Trophy winner Erik Karlsson was the biggest, most dangerous individual talent on either team.
And it’s played out exactly that way on the ice, as the speedy, skilled and special Karlsson has racked up four assists and a plus-2 rating in three games, and is averaging a series-high 28:36 of ice time while topping 30 minutes in each of the last two games.
The 26-year-old torched the Bruins in Game 3 at TD Garden with his on-ice vision and stretch passes, tossing an elite saucer pass to a streaking Mike Hoffman for the first goal of the game and then kick-starting the game-winning power play goal in overtime with another stretch pass that ultimately led to Bobby Ryan’s game-winning strike.
In a series where every game has been decided by a single goal, Karlsson’s innate ability to exploit the Bruins defense and make plays happen offensively with his passing and hockey IQ has been a difference-maker. The Bruins, down 2-1 after three games, know they have to make Karlsson work a whole lot harder for everything he’s getting.
“Obviously he’s their best player and the No. 1 playmaker on that team,” said Zdeno Chara. “He’s pretty much had his fingers in all of their important goals, whether it’s been on the power play or during even strength. So, for sure, a player like that isn’t easy to defend. But at the same time I think we can do a much better job making sure that he doesn’t get to play his game as much as he wants to.
“It’s not to take anything away from him. He’s one of the top defensemen in the league and one of the fastest skaters in the league. But at the same time we’ve got to do a better job of neutralizing him from the game that he wants to play.”
It’s obviously easier said than done when it comes to a dominant player who finished with 17 goals and 71 points for the Sens this season. He's the straw that stirs the drink offensively for them with his speed, clever passing and underrated shot from the point. But the Bruins could certainly stand to be a little more physical with the 6-foot, 191-pound defenseman, who was a little banged up with a lower body injury entering the series, and they need to simply do a better job of being on high alert every time he’s on the ice.
In his dazzling play during Game 2 where he wheeled around the offensive zone before dropping a pass to a wide-open Derick Brassard, the entire five-man defensive unit for Boston followed him with the puck and lost track of the player creeping up to the backdoor. In Game 3, Dominic Moore got too aggressive chasing Karlsson around the back of the net in an overtime penalty-killing situation and that opened things up for the Sens D-man to throw a stretch pass straight up the middle that got a changing B’s unit scrambling and kick-started the game-winning goal for Ottawa.
There’s a balance somewhere between those two plays of challenging Karlsson without paying him too much respect, and that’s what a severely undermanned Boston group must do over the remaining game.
“I don’t know if you can neutralize that first [saucer pass in Game 3]. That’s an All-World play,” said interim coach Bruce Cassidy. “If the guys sneaking away then obviously you need some awareness, but we had just been keeping some pucks alive. So he sauced over our guys’ heads, so that’s one where you’ve got to just tip your hat to Karlsson.
“But chasing the puck out of his hands, good angles, good sticks to pucks and be physical when you can, which is easier said than done with any good player. That’s the strategy for a lot of guys, but it’s just not that easy at times. But knowing where he is on the ice and pushing him to the outside and taking good angles, I think we’re capable of that and we’re reinforcing that. That way at least he’s not in the middle of the ice and now everybody is in scramble mode. He’s an elite player and he plays half the game, so he’s going to do damage. There’s a lot of ways he can beat you, so we need to do a better job of neutralizing him. If you can be physical with him within the rules of the game, he is a guy coming off an injury. You make him work through your body to get up ice, it makes it a lot tougher for him over the course of two weeks. You might get away with it for one game, but if you keep being heavy on him it can wear on [him]. We’ll have to look at that.”
To Karlsson's credit he has become a more physical player over the years for a "skill guy" at the D-man position, so it's become much more of a challenge to discourage him with physicality.
The thinking was that with hard-hitting Noel Acciari entering the series in Game 3 and the B’s holding last change at home in Boston, things would get a lot more challenging for Karlsson. That didn’t happen on Monday night once the Bruins fell down by a couple of goals early in the game. But one would expect now is the time to start forcing other Senators players, and more specifically their D-men, to beat you.
If Karlsson keeps playing and producing like he has in the first three games of this season playoff series, it will be the biggest moment in his Stanley Cup playoff body of work to date. And it will be playoffs over for a Bruins team that needs to turn things around.