NHL Insider: Penguins must contain Senators' Karlsson
The Penguins were introduced to a rookie defenseman named Erik Karlsson in 2010 while dispatching of the Ottawa Senators in six games in the first round of the Stanley Cup playoffs. They haven't forgotten the brilliance they witnessed.
Three years later, Karlsson is a star. The Penguins saw it coming.
“We didn't know who he was,” said right wing Craig Adams, who will be largely responsible for containing Karlsson when Ottawa works on the power play.
“I remember back in that series we were all saying, ‘Who is this guy?' So we said, ‘Let's hit him. He looks so young.' Obviously we found out that hitting him is a lot easier said than done.”
But it remains the plan.
Karlsson, then 19, exploded onto the scene during the first round of the 2010 postseason. He was a little-known rookie before the series but recorded a goal and an assist in Game 1 to get the Penguins' attention.
He finished the series with six points in six games, his slick offensive game leaving quite an impression on the Penguins.
Since that series, Karlsson has emerged as one of the league's best. He won the Norris Trophy, awarded annually to the NHL's finest all-around defenseman, in 2012. During the 2011-12 season, Karlsson produced 19 goals and 78 points.
When he sustained what was believed a season-ending Achilles injury against the Penguins in February, Ottawa coach Paul MacLean suggested that Karlsson was in the argument concerning the identity of the world's best player. No one snickered when MacLean made the comment.
Now that Karlsson is back and healthy, how can he be stopped?
“I don't think he changes your game plan,” Adams said. “It just makes things more difficult when he's out there. His biggest asset is his skating. He carries the puck up the ice, but you can't always count on him playing at the point. He's just so mobile. He's got that ability to jump into the play and the speed to get back.”
The plan is a surprisingly simple one for the Penguins.
“The best way to defend him is to make him play in his own zone,” center Joe Vitale said. “He doesn't like doing that. So that's the focus for us. When he's on the ice, we want to get pucks behind him, hit him, grind him down. That's how you have to play against him.”
The Penguins deployed a similar game plan against Washington defenseman Mike Green during the 2009 playoffs. Instead of letting Green dictate play with his offensive gifts, the Penguins punished him every time he retrieved the puck.
“Karlsson showed last year that he's an amazing player,” Adams said. “We have a lot of respect of him.”