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First Round

Karlsson proves he can be difference-maker for Sharks in playoffs

Has two assists against Golden Knights in San Jose postseason debut

by Nicholas J. Cotsonika @cotsonika / NHL.com Columnist

SAN JOSE -- When the San Jose Sharks acquired Erik Karlsson from the Ottawa Senators on Sept. 13, they were going for it. This was a team trying to win the Stanley Cup for the first time; this was a defenseman who had won the Norris Trophy twice.

"We have a very good hockey team that probably needed to add one more difference-maker," general manager Doug Wilson said at the time.

The vision started to play out in Game 1 of the Western Conference First Round of the Stanley Cup Playoffs, perhaps to the Sharks' relief. After missing 27 of the final 33 regular-season games because of groin injuries, Karlsson looked like himself in a 5-2 win against the Vegas Golden Knights at SAP Center on Wednesday. He took a big hit, had two gorgeous assists and played 26:25.

 

[RELATED: Complete Sharks vs. Golden Knights series coverage]

 

"I thought he was excellent," coach Peter DeBoer said. "I think he's going to get better and better, which is good for us. He's got another level I think he can even get to. But he makes a huge difference for us in our defensive and offensive game."

The Golden Knights didn't have to deal with that when they defeated the Sharks in six games the second round last year. Game 2 of the best-of-7 series is here Friday (10:30 p.m. ET; NBSCN, SN360, TVAS2, NBCSCA, ATTSN-RM).

"Especially coming back from an injury -- I mean, groins, hips, anything like that for a guy as mobile as he is -- it's nice to see that he's back," said Brenden Dillon, Karlsson's usual defense partner.

Karlsson went through an adjustment period when the Sharks struggled early in the season. His and the team's performance picked up in tandem in December, and by Jan. 16, he had 43 points (three goals, 40 assists) in 47 games, tied for fourth in the NHL with John Carlson of the Washington Capitals.

Video: Jones, Sharks top Fleury, Golden Knights in Game 1

Then he missed nine games, came back for four, missed another, came back for one and missed 17 more. Although he was expected to return for the playoffs, it was fair to wonder how effective he would be.

He came back and played 22:01 in the regular-season finale at SAP Center on April 6 but didn't go full speed and seemed rusty in a 5-2 win against the Colorado Avalanche.

There are hints he still isn't 100 percent.

The morning of Game 1, Karlsson said: "This is the time of the year that we've all been waiting for. This is when it's the most fun to play hockey. Everybody's going to battle something. I'm no different. So I'm not seeing that as an obstacle. It's just a challenge."

After the game, he said: "It felt decent out there. It's just going to get better and better."

But Karlsson took a hit from Golden Knights defenseman Brayden McNabb in the first period, and his performance was more than decent afterward.

When the teams had a rare 3-on-3 situation in the second period, the Sharks had the rare luxury of sending out not one but two Norris Trophy winners, two of the top offensive defensemen in hockey, Karlsson and Brent Burns, with forward Tomas Hertl.

"It's all about puck control," Karlsson said.

Karlsson entered the offensive zone on the left wing and cut to the middle in front of Golden Knights forward Max Pacioretty. He used his body to shield the puck from Pacioretty and left a drop pass for Burns.

Pacioretty was flat-footed as Burns roared around and raced to the left circle, where his wrist shot went past defenseman Nate Schmidt and the left shoulder of goalie Marc-Andre Fleury to give San Jose a 2-0 lead at 6:59.

"Obviously he's got a lot of creativity and high skill," Burns said. "It just kind of happens. You've got to expect things when he has the puck. He's going to create things. He's able to create space."

Video: VGK@SJS, Gm1: Burns snaps one by Fleury

In a 5-on-5 situation later in the second, the puck came out to Karlsson inside the offensive blue line. Golden Knights center Paul Stastny approached to pressure him; Karlsson calmly kept his head up and spotted Sharks forward Evander Kane at the left hash marks.

Karlsson wristed the puck between Stastny's stick and skates not on net but to Kane's stick blade, and Kane deflected the puck past Fleury's left shoulder to give San Jose a 4-1 lead at 19:42.

"I mean, that's a special play," Dillon said. "A lot of guys … To have the vision to not just see that play but make it …"

Kane immediately pointed to Karlsson to acknowledge him.

"We've played long enough together now over the course of the year that I know he's always looking to make those passes and have that deception back there," Kane said. "Just tried to get to the net. I knew he saw me, and great play by him."

Great sign for the Sharks.

Video: VGK@SJS, Gm1: Kane tips in Karlsson's shot

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