NEW YORK – There are exactly 65 steps to the visitor’s dressing room after players step off the ice at Madison Square Garden.
Erik Karlsson limped painfully through each and every one of them.
He had just skated for more than six of the final eight minutes, holding his nerve while the New York Rangers threw everything they had at the Ottawa Senators. This was a man who had carried his team to its first Eastern Conference Final in a decade and then went from looking super human to fragile right before our very eyes.
The playoffs, man. What a grind.
“That’s the way it should be,” Karlsson said after Ottawa’s stirring 4-2 victory on Tuesday. “That’s the fun part of this sport: It’s going to hurt, it’s not going to be easy.”
We are still only two rounds into this Stanley Cup marathon, but it’s undeniable that the 26-year-old Swede is authoring something special this spring. The kind of performance that will be spoken about with reverence no matter what happens next.
The hockey world is naturally looking at this Senators team this morning and wondering: How did they do this? How did they possibly reach the final four?
And then, perhaps, they’ll watch the highlights and see No. 65 in the middle of absolutely everything. He put up five points over the final two games as Ottawa pushed the Rangers off the cliff.
There is always so much talk about Henrik Lundqvist whenever you attend big games in New York, but the truth is that Sweden has a new hockey King. He’s the perfect mixture of style and swagger, a fun-loving, tattooed defenceman who seems to have a limitless engine.
When everything was on the line in Game 6, head coach Guy Boucher turned the keys over to Karlsson. He was playing two minutes at a time under a five-man forecheck and still effortlessly clearing the puck to safety from the Senators zone.
“You see him at the last minute of the game, they’re pulling their goalie, and you see him in the corner,” said Ottawa centre Derick Brassard. “They have six guys and he’s just making plays to get the puck out – like flipping pucks like it’s nothing. He’s really confident and you can see it.”
Look around at what’s still left on the playoff landscape.
Ottawa will face either Pittsburgh or Washington next round and, with all due respect to Sidney Crosby, Evgeni Malkin, Nicklas Backstrom and Alex Ovechkin, there’s an argument to be made that Karlsson should be identified as the man with the best form in the world right now.
And he’s doing it on one foot. Literally.
Karlsson revealed that he suffered two hairline fractures in his left heel late in the regular season and twice spent prolonged stretches in the dressing room during the Rangers series – including the entire third period of Game 4.
“Yeah, he’s banged up,” said teammate Clarke MacArthur. “But he’s found a way.”
“You know what, I can’t explain it,” Boucher added. “If he’s not there it’s because he’s really not fine. This guy’s a horse. He takes a lot. I’m glad he’s on my team.”
He is averaging three minutes more per game in ice time than any other player remaining in these playoffs. He has already dragged a group of underdogs further than most thought possible.
In the aftermath of the emotional clincher here – where Ottawa scored the opening goal for the first time this series and lead four times as long as the previous five games combined – Boucher was asked if he’s worried that he might be leaning too heavily on his captain.
“I’m pretty sure if you asked Mr. Sather if he was scared to push Gretzky and put him on the ice there he would answer ‘No,”’ Boucher replied.
The pivotal moment of the final game came late in the second period after Mika Zibanejad had scored New York’s first goal. That brought life to an increasingly frustrated building, and gave the Rangers some hope with the deficit cut to 2-1.
Then Karlsson raced out of his own zone up the left side. He hit Bobby Ryan with a pass near the far blue line and found an open pocket free of his backchecker to wire the return pass into the top of Lundqvist’s net.
“That 3-1 goal, it just made a statement more than anything,” said teammate Mark Stone. “That we weren’t going to go down.”
Consider Karlsson’s individual moments of brilliance in this second-round series alone: He scored the winning goal in Game 1 from the corner with less than five minutes to play in regulation; he made cross-ice passes through traffic to set the table for the late tying goals in both Games 2 and 5 while Craig Anderson was on the bench for an extra attacker; he followed it up by making a deep pass to get Kyle Turris going on the overtime winner in Game 5; and he did all kinds of good work on Mike Hoffman’s opening goal Tuesday before scoring the winner himself.
For some players, that would amount to a good career in the playoffs. Not two weeks.
“I just didn’t really know he was capable of doing all those things,” said Brassard. “For everyone in this dressing room, it’s just like Crosby or (Connor) McDavid or Ovechkin and those guys, or Patrick Kane, he’s a game-changer.
“He’s doing everything, but a lot better than everyone else.”
And when Ottawa needed to shut everything down in a defensive shell, as it did in the third period of Game 6?
He was the man for that job, too.
“It was all about the small things that make you win,” said Boucher. “It wasn’t about the extraordinary things that a skill guy like him could do and try.”
A little relief for fans in the nation’s capital arrived more than an hour after the buzzer sounded on Tuesday’s victory. Karlsson was showered and changed into his suit now and walking down the ramp at MSG towards the team bus with Dion Phaneuf.
There was no longer any sign of the limp. The Senators play on.