While his teammates hooted and hollered coming off the Garden ice, Erik Karlsson hobbled. The Senators captain came into this series banged up and didn’t blink, leaving every bit of his immense ability on the ice in these last two games.
And in a series with few stars, his shone brightest. Karlsson scored the biggest goal of Game 6, the backbreaker to restore the Sens’ two-goal lead late in the second with the Rangers coming on strong.
Karlsson played 28:44 last night, including 11:13 in the final period to help the Senators hold on and advance to the Eastern Conference finals. He may have been hobbled by two fractures in his left heel and the various other hidden injuries from such a long season, but he didn’t show anything but Conn Smythe-level play.
“We’re spoiled, we get to see him make those plays on a daily basis,” Kyle Turris said. “Now everyone gets to see what he can do. He’s our leader every time out there.”
Ottawa’s dynamic captain was a force from the start Tuesday night. He blocked a shot and immediately got out on the rush in the first period, sending a smart, low shot that Mike Hoffman tipped past Henrik Lundqvist to get the Sens on the board first for the first time all series.
But it was Karlsson’s second-period goal that showed he had put his team on his back. The Rangers were buzzing, having cut the deficit in half and nearly tying it on a couple of occasions late in the second. But Karlsson used his speed and shiftiness to drift into a perfect spot to Lundqvist’s right, took a pass from Bobby Ryan and snapped one top shelf for a devastating response just 2:21 after Mika Zibanejad pulled the Rangers within a goal.
“That was the biggest play, for sure,” Hoffman said. “They got their goal and they were coming on a bit, that goal really gave us what we needed.”
This game followed Karlsson’s three-assist performance in Game 5, when he helped set up Derick Brassard’s tying goal in the final 90 seconds and then made a two-zone, tape-to-tape feed to start the play that ended with Turris’ overtime winner.
His 13 points lead all defensemen in the playoffs and the five he had over the final two games against the Rangers were all daggers. Pretty impressive for a player who could not finish Game 4 after taking a hard fall late in the second period here last week.
Karlsson’s Senators will be huge underdogs against either the Caps or Penguins in the East finals, the first time the 26-year-old has been beyond the second round of the playoffs. If he can continue his dazzling play, there’s no reason to think the Senators can’t pull off another upset.
“We didn’t go this far not to want more,” Karlsson said. “It’s going to be even harder next series, it’s going to take even more out of us. We’ll enjoy this for a little bit here, but we’re far from done.”