2013 NHL Playoffs: Is Erik Karlsson worn out?
Ottawa Senators defenceman Erik Karlsson is not at full health, yet he's played over 29 minutes in each of the team's first two playoff games. Should Paul MacLean address that for Game Three?
Despite the fact that he's obviously not at peak conditioning, Erik Karlsson remains the most potent offensive player in the Ottawa Senators lineup. That's been reflected in his ice time since returning from injury: He played over 27 minutes per game in the final three regular season games, and has had over 29 minutes in each of the two playoff games to date.
In Game Two especially, his lessened conditioning was obvious; not only was he physically vulnerable on the ice, he was also mentally worn out, and made the kind of costly mistake that he rarely makes to set up the Montreal Canadiens for their first goal en route to a 3-1 win. Most expect that a day of rest will do him some good, but the fact remains that Erik Karlsson isn't--in fact, can't possibly be--in post-season form after missing ten weeks of hockey and a heck of a lot of workout time in that span.
Which brings forth a very serious question: Does Paul MacLean need to manage Karlsson's ice time more effectively, and put less stress on the still-rebuilding body of the team's best player?
Home ice will offer interesting options for MacLean. He'll be able to use the last change to put Karlsson out in friendly situations, which should help the reigning Norris Trophy winner get more opportunities and take less punishment. He can also ensure the right forwards are out with Karlsson, either to offer defensive support (from Zack Smith and his wingers) or scoring complements (through the Kyle Turris line, if he and Milan Michalek get going).
But another option that may be worth exploring, as was suggested by community member puck me gently, is dressing seven defenders. That would give MacLean ample choices to be incredibly selective when offering ice time to Erik Karlsson, which will not only mean he'll have more energy towards the end of the game but also later in the series, when that time comes.
It's not an idea without its risks, as the Senators would sacrifice their very valuable team depth. But the potential benefits may outweigh that risk.
With Eric Gryba serving the final game of his suspension, Andre Benoit and Patrick Wiercioch would almost certainly be the defenders chosen to take some minutes from Karlsson. Either one on his own doesn't have the experience or capability to absorb much time, but together they could bring Karlsson's on-ice time down to reasonable levels.
If the experiment works, it could be carried forward as long as MacLean deems it necessary. Once Gryba's available for Game Four, he may draw back in--or he may not. It's simply another option that the coaching staff can use to keep Montreal's players and coaches unsure of what to expect from game to game.
And if the experiment doesn't work, and Karlsson still looks worn out, well... then the Senators could find themselves in a lot of trouble. Craig Anderson's play has been stellar so far, but he can't score goals. Neither, it seems, can many other Senators' players unless they've got help from Karlsson or Carey Price. It's unlikely that Price is anxious to give the Sens much more help than he offered in Game One, so it's largely up to Karlsson at this point.
We'll see what he can do.