PITTSBURGH — As he packed for his first trip to the NHL playoffs, Erik Karlsson remembered the brash confidence that has helped him become one of the most exciting young players in the NHL.
Asked about facing Sidney Crosby, Evgeni Malkin and the rest of the defending Stanley Cup champion Pittsburgh Penguins, the 19-year old Senators defenceman just shrugged.
“I don’t really lay so much focus on other players,” said Karlsson. “I know who they are, and they’re good players. But I don’t think I’ve ever had trouble with any of those players before, so I don’t know why I should have it now.”
Karlsson, who finished the regular season with five goals, 21 assists and a minus-5 rating in 60 games, is certainly a different player than he was at the start of a rookie campaign that was interrupted by demotion in late October and a month-long stay in Binghamton.
Even though he was better when he returned to the NHL, he hit bottom Jan. 16 when his plus-minus dropped to minus-13.
The turning point in his play is easily traced to a late March road trip. Karlsson was a minus-4 in a 5-4 Saturday afternoon loss to Dallas, after which coach Cory Clouston spoke of the young Swede’s recent struggles. The team arrived in Montreal early that night and, with the game against the Canadiens not until Monday night, players went out on the town for a nice dinner and some bonding time.
The next morning, Karlsson was not among the Senators to take part in an optional practice at Bell Centre. When reporters spoke with him afterwards about his game against the Stars, Karlsson insisted that the numbers didn’t tell an accurate story.
“Sometimes the stats tell you one thing and the game tells you another thing,” he said then. “It was a night like that, I think. I felt good about my game.”
The next night, Karlsson had a goal and an assist in a 2-0 win over the Habs, and he’s been very good ever since. In the season’s last 10 games, he scored four goals, eight assists and was a plus-7.
“He’s had some ups and downs throughout the season, and that was a tough game,” Clouston said Tuesday about the day in Dallas.
“When you break down that video ... it’s easy to blame one guy because he was minus-4, but that wasn’t the case. It just happened to be one of those tough games when a mistake was made and it was in the back of our net when he was out there. I wouldn’t say it was a wake-up call, but it was something that made him re-focus.”
Karlsson doesn’t use the word “confidence” when explaining his improved play.
“I think it’s more about experience,” he said. “The more you play, the better you feel. The better the team plays, the better you feel as well. I think we’ve been playing good lately, and everybody helps each other to play good.”
Naturally, Karlsson says he’s “really excited” about his first post-season experience. He doesn’t expect nervousness to be a problem.
“I’ve just got to stay really focused and really try to play the best as you can every night,” he said.
Karlsson says the playoff experience of players surrounding him in the Senators dressing room is going to help him immensely.
“They’ve been around for so long, they really know what it’s all about to win the Cup, I think, even though they haven’t done it,” he said of the likes of Chris Phillips, Anton Volchenkov, Daniel Alfredsson, Mike Fisher and Jason Spezza.
“They’ve still been in a lot of playoffs and gone very far. It’s going to be good for us that we’ve got a lot of players that have experience. I think we’re going to do good.”