The Erik Karlsson “revival” tour keeps rolling.
At one end, he’s notched 25 points in his last 14 games. At the other end, in the absence of Marc-Edouard Vlasic and Justin Braun, Karlsson has helped contain both league-leading scorer Nikita Kucherov and “best player in the world” Connor McDavid.
“He’s as good in our end as he is in the offensive zone,” gushed Assistant Coach Steve Spott. “You can see his game going to the next level both offensively and defensively.”
McDavid failed to record a shot at 5-on-5 for just the third time this season. And for the first time this year, he didn’t even attempt a shot at 5-on-5.
The Sharks, who mostly matched Lukas Radil — Logan Couture —Timo Meier — Brenden Dillon — Karlsson at 5-on-5 against McDavid, set the tone in the opening frame.
It’s easier said than done, but handling McDavid is often predicated on not allowing him to build speed with the puck.
It’s a small play, but a sign of things to come: McDavid (97), along with Zach Kassian (44), chased the dump-in with speed, but Karlsson (65) set a soft, not likely to be called pick, delaying McDavid ever so slightly. Dillon (4) was able to beat both Kassian and McDavid to the puck.
A loose puck has squirted to Jujhar Khaira (16); predictably, McDavid is off to the races. But watch Dillon as McDavid took off: best that he can, he was on top of McDavid.
Just as important is keeping the puck out of McDavid’s hands; Lukas Radil (52) flew in on the forecheck to prevent Khaira from advancing it.
Spott noted, of McDavid, “One thing we talked about is whoever’s on the ice against him, you have to respect him, make sure you’re above him, make him come through you.”
Sometimes, you have no choice but to match McDavid step for step. That’s pretty much impossible, but a talented skater like Karlsson can at least make a race of it.
Karlsson also used his stick to keep McDavid to the outside and neutralized him behind the net. That one-on-one battle at a standstill, San Jose was able to dominate the rest of McDavid’s much weaker Edmonton teammates to win the puck again.
Off the draw, Meier (28) got a good angle on McDavid. From the point, Caleb Jones (82) dumped it to the opposite corner. Couture (39) set a soft pick on Khaira, paving the way for Radil to get to the puck first. The Czech made a gutsy pass between McDavid’s legs to Meier and out.
Adam Larsson (6) has forced a rare turnover for the Oilers and a wheeling McDavid looked to scoop the puck up and turn it around (00:01). But again, before McDavid could get going, there was Couture on top of him.
“Gap, sticks, playing him tight,” Dillon indicated about how to play McDavid. “If you give him room, he’s going to make plays.”
And once again, the best defense is often good offense.
Couture made a short drop pass to Radil. Radil fired it off Larsson to Alex Chiasson (39), but Couture was on top of him (00:08). Couture went high on a quality chance. Karlsson pinched, beating Khaira to the puck (00:12). Karlsson and Radil double-teamed Larsson.
Khaira came out with it (00:17), but where’s McDavid? He was defending, the last Edmonton player out of the zone. Jones dumped it in, but not hard enough, as Aaron Dell stopped the puck behind the net.
Off the Oilers' faceoff win, McDavid zoomed ahead. Jones rimmed the puck ahead hard for McDavid.
A funny bounce turned it over to Karlsson.
But critically, San Jose’s positioning was excellent. Couture can’t skate with McDavid in open ice, but he stayed between Jones and McDavid. Karlsson was on top of McDavid, just in case.
Sound positioning led to a nifty Dillon to Meier connection, putting the McDavid line on its heels once again.
The Sharks’ forecheck went to work, as a Karlsson shooting gallery forced McDavid to expend more energy at the other end.
Finally, the Oilers claimed the puck with just eight seconds left in the first period. If Khaira could get the puck to him, McDavid might finally have some room to breathe.
Or at least, open ice against Karlsson. Couture has backed up for the pinching Dillon. The backchecking Radil will switch on Ty Rattie (8).
But we know how this story ends for Edmonton.
Couture closed on Khaira, snuffing out another McDavid threat.
By my count, McDavid didn’t handle the puck once at top speed against Dillon-Karlsson at 5-on-5 during the first period.
Per Natural Stat Trick, these were the results of their labor:
“Dillon and Karlsson did a real good job against him defensively,” said Spott. “Give our forwards a lot of credit for not giving him a lot of time out there. We did a good job on him.”
With the world’s best player neutralized, the Sharks were able to race out to a 3-1 first period lead. They never looked back.