BOSTON — After the Ottawa Senators put the finishing touches on their 1-0 Game 4 victory over the Boston Bruins on Wednesday, the accolades were raining down on captain Erik Karlsson inside the dressing room.
Zack Smith labelled him “superhuman.” Kyle Turris and Mark Stone said Karlsson has no equals in the NHL.
“Again, 65 looks like the best player in the world right now,” said Stone, referring to all the simple plays and the big one Karlsson made, setting up Bobby Ryan at the side of the net with the slap-pass that resulted in the game’s only goal. “Again, he makes the big play for us.”
Truth be told, there hasn’t been all that much separating the Senators and Bruins. All four games have been one-goal decisions, two of them decided in overtime. A bounce here or there and the series could be deadlocked 2-2, or the Bruins could even be up 3-1.
The Bruins’ Tuukka Rask was the better goalie in Game 1, but Craig Anderson had the upper hand in delivering the Game 4 shutout.
Then there’s the difference-maker named Karlsson. If he looked tentative in coming off his late-season foot injury in Game 1, that’s pretty much forgotten now.
He has at least one point in every game, five assists overall, with enough signature moments — see the Game 2 dance along the blue-line and setup for the Derick Brassard tap-in, the Game 3 Hail Mary pass to Mike Hoffman and Wednesday’s timely play to Ryan — to stand out in a series that has centred on defensive discipline.
“It’s what I’m paid to do,” Karlsson said, when asked about the big plays at big times.
Beyond the points, though, has been the maturity, recognizing when to take charge or sit back.
According to Turris, Karlsson has also grown into his role as captain, understanding when to speak up.
“I feel he has really come into his own as a leader,” said Turris. “He’s a great captain. He knows when to say something and when to leave things. He has a real good feel for things.”
When told about Turris and Stone calling him the best player in the NHL, Karlsson simply smiled.
“That’s nice of them,” he said, pausing.
“I think that I’ve been doing my part for the most part of the year and in the playoffs here. And everyone else has being doing the same thing. In that, you allow yourself to be good individually, and that means you come together as a good team.
“I couldn’t do anything if I didn’t get the help and strong play from everyone else.”
Pressed on whether he carries the attitude that he wants to be, or needs to be, the best player on the ice, he once again deflected the question.
“No, I play my game, I stay in the moment. I take it shift by shift. I always have and always will,” he said.
“If you’re going to win anything, not everyone is going to score goals, but you need everyone to make plays. Everyone has accepted that, especially this time of year. It’s small things that make a big difference.”
With the Senators nursing their 1-0 lead and only a couple of minutes remaining Wednesday, the Bruins attempted to clear the puck around the boards in their own zone. Karlsson took two steps toward the puck, in what was shaping up to be a 50/50 gamble to the loose puck.
A year ago, Karlsson might have continued his charge ahead, wanting to make a play that might put the game out of reach. Instead, he pulled back, making the more conservative defensive decision, eliminating the possibility of an odd-man rush by the Bruins.
“He has always had that offence, always had that vision, always had that skill, but what he has done this year is that he has used it in the right moments for the right reasons,” said Senators coach Guy Boucher. “It’s not just inspiring guys by defending so well and paying the price at the right time defensively, but also managing his offensive game at the right time. That goes back to maturity. When your top guy is buying in, that will translate to the whole team.
“He has become something else in all aspects.”
With the Senators now in control of the series, with an opportunity to finish the Bruins off on Friday night, Karlsson faces another challenge of his leadership.
He has to show the way by taking away the Bruins’ hope.
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