Senators Preview: the Erik Karlsson factor

“[Erik Karlsson] is everything to that team. He drives their offense, their transition, their specialty teams - you name it. He’s that important.” - Mike Johnson, NHL Network

Karlsson is that important because he’s that good - and everyone knows it, including Alain Vigneault.

Karlsson presents a much different problem to the Rangers than Shea Weber did in the first round. Weber is many things, but even his rink-rattling shot can be foiled by taking space away from him or by throwing a body in front of it. Karlsson is a different and far more dynamic defenseman.

Karlsson beats opponents with his feet and his eyes. He’s widely considered the best puck-moving defenseman for a reason - he moves the puck better than most elite forwards.

The Swedish blueliner has 110 assists in his last two seasons. For some context ten different Rangers defenders combined for 135 assists this year. The analytics tell an even more convincing story of his overpowering ability to generate offense. He’s sensational.

Karlsson been taking his game to another level this postseason and that goes beyond playing the Bruins with two hairline fractures in his heel.

The Rangers track record against Karlsson

Having great goaltending is a wonderful thing. The last time the Rangers met Karlsson in the postseason he had 1 goal (PP), no assists and 32 shots in a nasty seven-game series. He was just 21-years-old at the time.

In Karlsson’s last eight regular season games against the Rangers he has scored 2 goals (one on the PP), picked up 1 assist and put 23 shots on net.

Notice something about that goal (other than Mika Zibanejad setting it up)? It was created by a Rangers mistake and Karlsson wasted no time jumping into the rush, ready to exploit it.

How to play him?

Playing Karlsson tough is a lot easier said than done. He skates like the wind and processes the game better than almost anyone. It goes without saying that the Rangers should finish each and every check they can against him, but it will take a lot more than hits to keep Karlsson from making an impact.

The Rangers made a point of going after him in the 2012 Playoffs in an infamous incident featuring Brian Boyle in Game 1 that resulted in a brawl in Game 2 that was capped off by Brandon Dubinsky spiking a Gatorade cooler.

But that is ancient history for the 26-year-old superstar.

“I think that was earlier in my career where I didn’t have as big a role and I didn’t really understand a lot of things and the impact on things,” Karlsson told the media on Tuesday. “I feel like now I’ve been in this situation before and that’s probably the most important thing.”

The best way to handle the Senators when Karlsson is on the ice — which is about every other minute — is to not make unforced errors and mistakes. Which we all know has not been the Rangers forte this year.

The Bruins were burned by sloppy changes, mistakes in transition and giving Karlsson too much space in their series against Ottawa. And Boston knows all about Karlsson and how well he sees the ice.

The Rangers can ill-afford the volume of mental miscues that we saw in the first round. Mistakes in the transition game will be setting the table for Karlsson to change the game with one stretch pass.

New York is a quick team, but the bulk of that speed belongs to the Rangers forwards. Players like Marc Staal, Dan Girardi and Nick Holden can’t afford to let Ottawa’s wingers get behind them when possession changes in Ottawa’s favor.

Karlsson is going to be an impact player regardless of what the Rangers head coach puts up on the dry erase board or goes over in video sessions. The key is to limit opportunities that the Swedish defenseman can exploit. Hopefully Vigneault will do his homework and be mindful of how important line changes and mistake-free hockey are against the Senators.

Thanks for reading. Keep an eye out at noon for more on Ottawa’s most dangerous player from Jack.