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The Pens shut down Karlsson through 2: can they keep it up?

Ottawa’s top guy is playing abnormally quiet so far, and his impact on Games 1 and 2 was nonexistent on the score sheet. This team doesn’t have the talent to win the Eastern Conference Final if this continues, but will it?

NHL: Stanley Cup Playoffs-Ottawa Senators at Pittsburgh Penguins Charles LeClaire-USA TODAY Sports

The extension of the Ottawa Senators’ postseason success putting them into the Eastern Conference Final has been predicated upon the performance of their star defenseman Erik Karlsson. He’s been the catalyst to exactly 88% of the team’s victories throughout this year’s Stanley Cup Playoffs, and is desperately missed whenever he doesn’t make his mark on the score sheet. There’s no question that when he’s at the top of his game, the Sens’ chances of grabbing a win are almost always a lock, but so far against the Pittsburgh Penguins this series, Karlsson hasn’t notched a single point to his name. With him regularly tallying game points, Ottawa is a Cup contender — but without his essential impact, the Senators might as well pack it up and head to the nearest links course.

It’s obvious that Erik Karlsson is the Senators’ Motor

Let’s get one thing straight, Ottawa’s roster isn’t made up of a bunch of D-league guys centered around a single perfect player. The Senators have some solid middle-of-the-road forwards and defenders like Jean-Gabriel Pageau, Bobby Ryan, Mike Hoffman, and Dion Phaneuf who that can throw the puck hard at the net or land a massive hit to stir up the crowd — not to mention that Craig Anderson guy. But there’s no denying how much of the team’s achievements are decided on Karlsson’s influence via his execution on the ice. If anything, the rest of the roster feeds off the Swedish ace’s energy. He’s arguably the best defenseman in the NHL right now, and that kind of star power can drag a less touted team deep into the playoffs solely because of how that star affects each game.

When Karlsson does collect points, Ottawa wins games

Going along with the aforementioned statement, a more magnified lens shows that eight out of the nine victories the Sens’ earned so far throughout these playoffs have been games where Karlsson garnered at least one game point. That’s some easy math, folks.

Karlsson’s ability to set up his forwards is another reason the defender is so celebrated. The Swede put up six assists in six games against the Boston Bruins in the first round, and in the second round series with the New York Rangers, he strung together five assists in six games. Karlsson can come up big in the scoring goals category too, boasting his clutch ability whenever big games are on the line. The problem is that he hasn’t done either of these things in either Game 1 or Game 2, and if that continues, the Senators’ are going to become desperate for an unsung hero. Ottawa fans got used to Karlsson always being on the two-man list of names for assists on goals, but he hasn’t even been tagged once yet. There’s no doubt they’re missing the Karlsson who did this in Game 6 against the Rags.

Through two Eastern Conference Final games, he hasn’t gotten a single point

To be honest, Karlsson’s been pretty good in every aspect other than game points, and sure, some of you may argue that the defenseman made up for his lack of offensive tallies in effort situations that don’t light up a game recap, but that argument is irrelevant when those hustle plays aren’t winning Ottawa any games. He averages about 30 minutes of total ice time a contest — there’s little excuse for a guy skating for that massive amount of a time without ensuring the scoreboard tilts in his team’s favor. For you fancy stat fanatics, Karlsson’s even strength Corsi For percentage dropped from 53.18% in the Rangers series to 46.2% against Pittsburgh so far. His Corsi Relative percentage has also dropped significantly since last round, averaging just a fourth of what it was (from 8.3% down to 2.4%) in the second round — somewhere around the time he was starring in just about every highlight reel. It’s still early in the series, but these sorts of downturns are hard to ignore with so much riding on each game.

How can the Penguins continue to keep him off the score sheet?

Ottawa as a whole has been fantastic on their penalty kill, and Pittsburgh is well aware of that, but what may have flown under the radar is its success on the 5-on-5. One big takeaway that can pinch the nerves of Mike Sullivan and the Penguins is how impeccable Karlsson has been during areas of special teams. Here’s the scary kicker:

He’s currently riding an insane high-point in Corsi For percentages at 5v5 (via Corsica Hockey) and is without points in these two games. Can that continue? Or will the Swedish phenomenon break through this peculiar dry-spell and bury the Pens in the process?

We’ll have to ride out the rest of the series and see.