How did the Ottawa Senators, who held the lead during games in their second-round series with the New York Rangers for about as long as your average premium cable drama series episode, propel themselves to their first conference finals since 2007?
There are many explanations involving coaching strategies, lineup decisions and late-game heroics, but one player had a monumental impact that may never be properly measured. His ability to turn the tide with a single shift was unmatched by anyone on the Rangers roster. He was a game-breaker in every sense of the word and there isn't enough credit (or perhaps money when the time comes for a new contract) in the world for this man.
Folks, Chris Neil's footprint on this series will be studied by historians as the—
Just kidding! Of course, it's Erik Karlsson.
Sure, Alain Vigneault insisted on Tanner Glass in his lineup and made indefensible decisions with his defensemen's minutes and matchups that hamstrung the Rangers, but Karlsson was the Senators' everything. He scored the winning goals in Games 1 and 6, had the winning assist in Game 5, and was on the ice for the deciding goal in Game 2.
Karlsson, actually, has been on the ice for all eight winning goals from the Senators during the postseason.
That's a byproduct of coach Guy Boucher playing Karlsson 29 minutes per game and north of 30 minutes in two contests against New York. Karlsson finished the series with two goals and seven points (five in the final two games) on a broken foot and hobbled off the ice at MSG—presumably because of the foot, but possibly because his back is killing him after carrying the Senators through two rounds.
Derick Brassard came to Ottawa in a trade from the Rangers last offseason and had this to say about Karlsson, who was deemed worse than Drew Doughty by PHWA voters a year ago.
"I knew how good he was but I really didn't know he was capable of doing all those things," Brassard said. "For everyone in this dressing room, he's just like [Sidney] Crosby or [Connor] McDavid or [Alex] Ovechkin or Patrick Kane. He's a game-changer. He's doing everything, but a lot better than everyone else. There's not one night this year I was wondering where he was on the ice. He shows up every night. He competes. He blocks shots. He does everything. We're lucky to have him on our side."
Karlsson is probably the Conn Smythe winner through two rounds. The Senators are a true Stanley Cup contender when he's on the ice and something closer to the Colorado Avalanche when he's on the bench between shifts. During the playoffs, the Senators have outscored opponents 12-6 at 5-on-5 with Karlsson on the ice and have been outscored 18-10 when he's catching his breath.
Yeah, Karlsson had the goal and an assist, but with the Rangers attacking at 6-on-5 late in the third period, he showed his quickness in tight spaces. He won puck battles along the boards and created enough space to relieve pressure by clearing the zone, something his detractors in the past claimed was not part of his repertoire.
A case can be made the Senators weren't the better team over six games against the Rangers, but there's no denying the difference maker was Karlsson, who was by far the best player in this series.
"I can't explain it—he's just one of those guys that's like all the other top quality stars that evolved into winners," Boucher said. "That's what he has. The technical qualities. The emotional, the physical qualities. He's been a real team guy, so he's become a terrific leader, somebody that cares about everything else but himself.
"That's why he's doing it. It's not about him. That's how those stars become winners."