OTTAWA — When stuck in convention, it doesn’t make immediate sense.
Trading for Dion Phaneuf, the Ottawa Senators invested a substantial portion of their budgetary assets on a defenceman that fills a shutdown mold and who specializes in making life miserable for the opposition’s best players. Part of the rationale was that his acquisition would liberate Erik Karlsson, leaving the otherworldly defenceman to feast on talent discrepancies that would arise with Phaneuf earning his money by handling the more difficult defensive matchups.
Freelancing, rather than focusing his attention on limiting the damage from the opposition’s best, seemed to be the best way to use Karlsson, one of the handful of NHL players who slot into the “generational” file.
Well, Guy Boucher has had other ideas on how to manipulate matchups for superstars.
In the biggest game in his tenure with the Senators — and the most significant in many years for the franchise — Boucher had Karlsson hound Pittsburgh Penguins captain Sidney Crosby all night with the benefit of last change and was rewarded for his tactics when his captain dominated in another victory at Canadian Tire Centre in Game 3 on Wednesday night.
Asked about the decision to match uber skill with uber skill, Boucher implied that he’s not exactly re-inventing the wheel in the Eastern Conference final.
“Erik was our best defensive defenceman all year,” he said.
“Methot is his partner. They (did) a terrific job last game, but they have done that all year — so did Dion Phaneuf and (Cody) Ceci. So we have alternated those guys in different games, against different players.
“We just continue to do what we did all year. We’re not doing anything different.”
Breaking convention has become a hallmark for the Senators.
But still, Boucher’s preferred choice of matchups reveals a fascinating subplot moving forward in the series. Perhaps his tactics were influenced by the lead the Senators jumped out to in Game 3 — and the fact that goals became inessential after 13 minutes.
Or perhaps this is the precise manner in which Ottawa has to match wits against a team that disperses talent across its lineup more effectively than most — or all — teams.
Phaneuf remains in a shutdown role, but against the Penguins, his task has become silencing the secondary weapons at Mike Sullivan’s disposal, namely Phil Kessel.
A thorn in his old buddy’s side all series, Phaneuf has done a masterful job so far, throwing his weight around again like he’s a teenager in Grand Forks. But more importantly, he’s pulled the puck out of his own net just a single time in over 66 minutes of ice time through three games in the conference final.
“Whatever he’s doing against Kessel right now, it’s something that we appreciate because Kessel is such an unbelievable player; he’s always dangerous,” said Derick Brassard.
But being able to have Phaneuf and Ceci focus their attention on the Kessel matchup, not the speed that Crosby’s unit possesses, presents an advantage only made possible by the versatility of Karlsson, who has been the most dominant player in these playoffs.
Not only is he Boucher’s “best defensive defenceman,” but it comes at no cost to his ability to pull the strings offensively for the Senators, who have now outscored the Penguins 7-3 in the series after their 5-1 triumph on Wednesday.
It’s why his teammates continue to marvel.
“There’s is no other Erik Karlsson on planet earth,” said Chris Wideman.
For the last two springs, the Penguins have left the hockey world wondering what it would take to offset the depth of the Penguins’ attack.
In Karlsson, we might finally have found our answer.