The last time the Sens were in Pittsburgh there was, as you will recall, a fair amount of attention on the play of Erik Karlsson. Not only was he logging season-low minute totals, he was visibly frustrated on the ice and bench. He wasn’t meeting the expectations set for a Norris Trophy winner, let alone his own.
In Game 3 Karlsson rebounded in a fashion to be expected of a star player in the NHL. He showed his patented speed through the neutral zone, he played with the puck on his stick, he even flirted with the spectacular on a soccer-style dribble and pass attempt that almost resulted in a Sens goal.
In sum, Karlsson brought that flair which has entrenched his status as the best defenceman in hockey and cornerstone of the Ottawa Senators.
The proof? Over the course of three periods and two overtimes, the Sens put forth 98 attempts on goal, 11 more than the Penguins. Karlsson was on the ice for 42 per cent of those attempts. If a shade under half of your offensive efforts come while a single player is on the ice, they are doing their job very well. Though Karlsson was on the ice for the lone Penguins goal, Pittsburgh didn’t have much time to play with the puck while he was on the blueline.
As we’ve seen, if you keep the puck off of their sticks you stand to fare well.
Though Game 4 went poorly for the Sens, Karlsson improved his game. In addition to the natural skill he brings nightly, Ottawa directed 63 attempts towards the goal and Karlsson was on the ice for roughly 46 per cent of them. The game end result was clearly not what the Sens had in mind come playoff time, but the manner in which their top blueliner has bounced back is certainly reason to be encouraged.
It was said prior to the playoffs that as Karlsson goes, so do the Sens. If the Sens were to go into their fifth game with the Penguins down two games and Karlsson still struggling, panic may be justified. However, with Karlsson rounding into form after some ups and downs since his return, the Sens can have confidence knowing that 65 wants nothing to do with an early exit.
“I would like to play for another month or so. I think the whole team is starting to play better, especially at the start of games. It's just easier to get it going,” said Karlsson. “We still feel pretty good even though we lost. We've just got to keep playing. It's not over yet.”
A key for the Sens going forward will be the ability to send pucks through to goal. Kyle Turris’ Game 4 goal underscored the importance of that as a seemingly harmless flip was put on goal by Karlsson, mishandled, and eventually put in the back of the net by Turris. The rebounds have been there, it’s just a matter of knocking them in.
To get more of those opportunities finding a way through a Pens defensive core that has blocked 32 shots over the last two games is imperative. The solution isn’t always obvious, but that’s a primary challenge of playoff hockey itself.
“Miss bodies or shoot through them,” said Karlsson. “I don't know. Sometimes it's tough to get pucks through and sometimes you get it through the first guy and hit someone else. It's just the way the game is played right now.“
Step one for the Sens will be deciding on an offensive approach to consistently execute. Karlsson said the team had such a hard time deciding whether or not to dump and chase or carry the puck in that their possession time fizzled altogether.
“I think we've just got to work hard,”said Karlsson. “We need to make a decision if we want to get the puck in or play with the puck coming through the neutral zone and stick to it and hope that it works.”
If it does work, they will have opportunity to mop up loose pucks and get additional quality chances on goal. Second chance opportunities have been present all series long for the Sens who have simply been beaten to loose pucks or can’t convert. The combination of work rate and puck luck has made the Penguins a very difficult opponent to this point in time.
Getting those shots through and converting them will be step one towards a victory in Game 5.
“We have a lot of good shots and we have a lot of rebounds that could end up on our sticks and just haven't. That's one thing we have to figure out,” said Karlsson. “We need those bounces and someone to put the puck in the net when it's open.”
The good news for the Sens on that front is their star defenceman appears to have gotten his groove back. With 40 or more per cent of pucks at Pittsburgh’s net coming front 65, there will be ample opportunity for players below the hashmarks to bring this series back to Scotiabank Place.
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