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Penguins vs. Senators Preview: Getting to know Erik Karlsson

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For the second straight series, the Ottawa Senators proved experts wrong. Now, in the Eastern Conference Final, they’ll once again look to their captain, all-world defenseman Erik Karlsson, to carry them to another series win.

Ottawa Senators v Detroit Red Wings Photo by Gregory Shamus/Getty Images

Last year, Kris Letang led the NHL in TOI per game (for all skaters who advanced past Round 1) and scored one of the franchise’s most iconic GWGs in Game 6 of the Stanley Cup Final. This year, Erik Karlsson leads the NHL in TOI per game (for all skaters who advanced past Round 1) and became the first Senators’ defenseman in franchise history to record multiple GWGs in a single postseason.

The Ottawa Senators have made quite an unlikely run to the Eastern Conference Final. Say what you will about the playoff format, but this team was still considered by many to be the least likely candidate to emerge from the non-Penguins/Capitals half of the bracket.

Simple math tells us that, through two series won, the Senators have won eight games this postseason. What simple math can’t tell us is how Erik Karlsson has managed to be on the ice for ALL EIGHT GAME-WINNING GOALS THE SENATORS HAVE SCORED. I know, seems unbelievable, right? Well, it’s true. In fact, he’s factored in on five of those GWGs (2 goals and 3 assists).

Oh, I forgot to mention a minor detail: he’s playing with two hairline fractures in his heel.

Now that you have his bill of health, let’s get more personal.

Name: Erik Karlsson

Position: Defenseman

Height: 6’0”

Weight: 191 lbs.

Born: May 31, 1990

Drafted: Ottawa 1st Round 2008, 15th overall

2016-17 stat line: 77 Games Played, 17 Goals, 54 Asssists, 71 Points, 26:50 TOI

2016-17 playoff stat line: 12 Games Played, 2 Goals, 11 Assists, 13 Points, 28:57 TOI

2016-17 stats vs Penguins: 3 Games Played, 1 Goal, 6 Assists, 7 Points, 26:11 TOI

2016-17 5v5 Advanced Stats: 49.72 Corsi For%, 7.7 Corsi Relative%

2016-17 playoff 5v5 Advanced Stats: 57.14 Corsi For%, 11.8 Corsi Relative%

Most surprising stat in 2016-17: 201 blocked shots (2nd in the NHL and more than Penguins’ shot-blocking extraordinaire Ian Cole — for those keeping score at home)

HERO Chart, via Domenic Galamini

Rolling Averages, via Corsica Hockey

Game Scores by series, via Dom Luszczyszyn

Round 1: Senators vs. Bruins

Round 2: Senators vs. Rangers

Ok, so he’s good. But is he really that good?

Yes. While serving as the anchor for a Senators blue line that deploys the neutral zone trap, Karlsson manages to be the most dynamic offensive player on a team that is not short on top-6 skill. He’s been the teams leading point-getter for the last four seasons and is a regular finalist for the Norris Trophy.

When he’s on the ice, Karlsson is the Senators’ catalyst in every way imaginable. At 5v5, the puck is glued to his stick and he quarterbacks the top power play unit. During the regular season, he was a middle of the road possession player (49.72 CF%), but during the playoffs Karlsson’s game has been on another level, boosting that number to 57.14 CF%.

Instead of me writing about his ability as a playmaker — that simply wouldn’t do it justice — let’s take a look at a goal that Karlsson set up in the Senators’ first-round series with the Bruins.

After a shot from the point is fired wide and caroms along the boards, Karlsson outmuscles Bruin forward Riley Nash to keep possession of the puck in the offensive zone.

With Nash already following him across the zone, Karlsson draws another Bruins player out to the blue line.

With Nash trailing behind and Dominic Moore flat-footed, Karlsson turns on the jets (no, seriously, watch the video) and swings wide to take them both out of the play.

Having now drawn the attention of every Bruin except Bobby Orr, Karlsson turns the puck to his forehand and sells the shot fake.

All five skater and Tuukka Rask bite on the fake, and he fires a pass through the middle of the box to a wide-open Derick Brassard, who finishes the one-timer that was served on a silver platter.

After the game, Brassard sends the screenshot to a group chat he’s still in with Rangers defensemen and former teammates Dan Girardi and Marc Staal. The three share a good laugh before meeting in the second round.

Can Karlsson steal a series by himself?

Yes. He’s genuinely that good, he is on the ice that often, and his play has that much impact on the outcome of the game. It can even be argued that — hairline fractures and all — he willed the Senators to both series wins in these playoffs.

Do I think he is able to steal this particular series single-handedly? No. But the Penguins need to be aware of where he is at all times. And if the place that he is, is the bench, they need to make the most of that opportunity — because he won’t be there for long.

The best part about Erik Karlsson, and something I can almost guarantee won’t change, is that you won’t end up hating him at any point in the series. He plays the game the right way and is the farthest thing possible from a dirty player. Ok, so maybe there was this one time where he kind of threw his stick at an official after the game:

With a bit more at stake in the Eastern Conference Final than a game he played for Jokerit during the NHL lockout, I don’t think we’ll see this Erik Karlsson. He’s the best defenseman in the world right now, his play has been otherworldly for the last month, and he is one of my absolute favorite players to watch. I’m willing to bet that after this series he’ll be one of your’s too — if he’s not already.