Alain Vigneault lamented the "average" performance he got from too many of his Rangers in Saturday's loss to the Ottawa Senators.
"And at this time of the year against such a good opponent," New York's head coach said over the weekend, "you can't bring an average game to the table."
Erik Karlsson has been anything but average for the Senators.
The brilliance of the 26-year-old captain has the Sens on the verge of reaching the Eastern Conference final for the first time in a decade. Not much has separated Ottawa and New York through five games â€” the Rangers have outscored the Senators 18-15 â€” other than Karlsson, playing through obvious injury, shining brightest.
The Swede, who was drafted a year after the Senators last made the conference final in 2007, has five points in three victories during the series. He has loomed especially large in each of those wins.
"He makes plays that are a step above everybody â€” like most superstars do," Sens winger Mark Stone said.
One of those plays came with less than five minutes to go in regulation during Game 1. His shot from an almost impossible goal-line angle beat Henrik Lundqvist and gave Ottawa a 2-1 victory. Karlsson also logged a game-high of almost 29 minutes, blocked three shots and matched Derick Brassard with a team-high five shots on goal.
Jean-Gabriel Pageau was the hero with four goals in a 6-5 double-overtime win two nights later, but Karlsson was also a bright light. Despite exiting briefly for the dressing room with injury, he finished with more than 37 minutes of ice time â€” topping all players yet again.
Ottawa had 57 per cent of the even-strength shot attempts when he was on the ice and only 46 per cent when he wasn't.
Karlsson's most impactful performance of the second-round series may be the most recent one. There were the 31 minutes and 12 shot attempts in the 5-4 Game 5 win, both of which led all players, and of course, the three critical assists.
On the first, Karlsson rushed up the ice from his own zone, drew Rangers defender Nick Holden in and then dropped to Clarke MacArthur, who found Mike Hoffman cross-ice for the game-tying 2-2 goal.
Then with just over 90 seconds left in regulation and the Sens down one, Karlsson flung another pass to MacArthur that just eluded preying sticks of Derek Stepan and Mats Zuccarello. MacArthur fired on goal with Brassard batting in the game-tying 4-4 rebound.
Karlsson played all but 1:02 of the final six and a half minutes of the third period â€” this after leaving Game 4 early in some discomfort.
He surveyed the ice from behind his own goal in OT and then whistled a pass off the sideboards to Alex Burrows which led to Kyle Turris' game-winner and 3-2 series edge.
"You know when he's on the ice, if you get open he'll probably find you," Stone said.
It's evident that Karlsson, who had six assists in the first round while playing with two hairline fractures in his foot, still isn't completely healthy. He's nonetheless up to 11 points in 11 games this post-season, tops among NHL defenders.
Karlsson has also had a large hand in neutralizing the Rangers most dangerous offensive players â€” of whom Vigneault was likely referring when he noted the "average game" of too many in Game 5.
Most of Karlsson's even-strength ice time in the Saturday afternoon affair â€” as far as opposing forwards go â€” came against Chris Kreider (8:30), who led the Rangers with 28 goals during the regular season, Zuccarello (8:11), who topped the club with 59 points, and Mika Zibanejad (7:51).
Each went point-less and Ottawa had the decisive puck possession advantage when Karlsson was on the ice.
Head coach Guy Boucher said Karlsson's defensive ability started with speed.
"If you look at what he's done this year, his back-check has probably been the most impressive stuff I've seen," Boucher said. "Everybody talks about his skill, but going on offence...and (then seeing) him catch up all the way back to our net, get the puck and take off with the puck (again).
"Not a lot of guys can do that."
Karlsson is effective, he added, in managing the gap between himself and opponents, smart in how he positions himself on blocked shots (he has 21 in the playoffs) and "probably his best asset is his stick on puck."
"I think now he's using a lot of stick on puck and finishing bodies and getting the puck," Boucher said. "So that's a lot of defensive tools that he's displayed this year and it's made him a real terrific two-way player now."
Jonas Siegel, The Canadian Press