If you want a measure of how valuable defenseman Erik Karlsson is to the Ottawa Senators, all you need to do is look at how much they use him.
Karlsson led all skaters in ice time with 28:44—he was out there for very nearly half of Ottawa’s clinching Game 6 win over New York. With the Senators clinging to a one-goal lead late and the Rangers surging, it was nothing but Karlsson. He skated a 2:30 shift, then came off for 53 seconds; skated a 1:42 shift, then came off for 57 seconds; skated 2:22 until the final horn sounded.
He’s doing this all, mind you, with two fractures in his heel, neither of which stopped him from averaging better than a point per game in these playoffs. He was the first star in last night’s 4-2 win, and an early Conn Smythe favorite, and he lives for this.
“That’s the way it should be,” Karlsson said. “That’s the fun part of this sport: It’s going to hurt, it’s not going to be easy.”
The 26-year-old Swede is Ottawa’s captain, the heart of a defensive-minded Senators team, and he’s also often the backbone of the offensive rush. His second-period goal last night (to go with an assist) was a soul-killer, re-extending the lead to two just after the Rangers had halved it.
He’s got a couple Norris Trophies, so it’s weird to say these playoffs have been Karlsson’s coming-out party, but it’s not wrong. Ottawa just isn’t a draw for the networks, not even in Canada, so the casual fan isn’t going to see him much in national games. You have to seek him out, and even then, his brilliance more often shows up in the stuff that doesn’t lead the highlights, like anchoring a neutral-zone clogging defense, and leading breakouts to set up his teammates. For a small-market team, the postseason is often the only way to expose even a superstar to a wider audience, and the Senators had won just a single game past the first round since 2007.
Coach Guy Boucher was asked to explain what makes Karlsson great. He acknowledged that he can’t really explain it, but he knows one thing: “I’m glad he’s on my team.”
And so Ottawa is through to the conference finals, an extremely unlikely Cinderella team—but, then, if they were likely they wouldn’t be Cinderellas, I suppose. It’s similarly tough to explain exactly how they got here—crediting a playoff format that matched them up with the East’s eighth- and fifth- best teams is certainly fair, but that does a disservice to Boucher’s defensive schemes, some balanced, opportunistic offense, Craig Anderson’s dependable play, and Karlsson’s all-around brilliance.
And Ottawa fans will take it! Here they are letting loose without jaywalking:
As for the Rangers, it feels like their window has shut. After making at least the conference finals in three of four years, they’ve now won just one playoff series in the last two seasons. They’re built around an aging goalie who is signed through 2021. They have too many expensive, underperforming defensemen to buy out them all. There’s enough youth on the roster and in the pipeline to keep them from being actively bad for too long, but a pretty impressive run of relevance is close to over, and if Henrik Lundqvist is going to win a Cup, it’s probably not going to be in New York.