Winning Play: Karlsson, Dillon limit Kucherov

Erik Karlsson, shutdown defenseman?

Going 15-0-1 since Nov. 28, there’s been no team hotter than the Tampa Bay Lightning. With 36 points in those 16 games, there’s been no player hotter than Nikita Kucherov.

On the other side, the San Jose Sharks were presumably in trouble. Marc-Edouard Vlasic and Justin Braun, the defenders most likely to be tasked with shutting Kucherov down, were both out with injuries.

Instead, San Jose snapped Tampa Bay’s 16-game point streak and held Kucherov without a shot.

In Vlasic and Braun’s stead, the Sharks turned to Karlsson and Brenden Dillon to match up against the line of Kucherov, Brayden Point and Tyler Johnson. Dillon logged a team-leading 12:22 at 5-on-5 versus Kucherov.

So how did Karlsson and company limit the league’s leading scorer? With a combination of solid team play, a well-executed plan and spectacular individual efforts.

San Jose stayed on top of Kucherov (86) all night; the clear goal was to prevent the superstar winger from building speed. Here, Karlsson (65) pinched to force a flat-footed Kucherov to give up the puck.

Joe Pavelski noted, “We didn’t give them a ton of speed coming through the neutral zone. We thought that was going to be a big factor in this game, if we could get through there, not turn over a lot of pucks. Slow them on the other side.”

“We executed our game plan better than they did,” said Karlsson.

Meanwhile, Timo Meier (28) did what you’re supposed to do when your defenseman pinches; he covered for Karlsson and happened to walk into a loose puck.

Karlsson used his skating and stick to angle Kucherov into the wall, forcing the winger to surrender the puck. Lukas Radil (52) and Logan Couture (39) managed to eke it out.

The Lightning attempted to re-group at the blueline, but Karlsson anticipated, stepping up to bother Kucherov. This resulted in Victor Hedman (77) just dumping it in so he and his teammates could change.

San Jose always wants an effective forecheck, and that was what Radil provided here as the F1 on Anton Stralman (6). Stralman, however, completed a gorgeous behind-the-back pass to a wheeling Point (21). Point gave the puck to Johnson (9), who tossed it ahead, an area pass that set up a race to the puck between Karlsson and Kucherov.

Kucherov actually won this battle (00:10), pushing the puck forward. But Couture and Dillon (4) were able to clear.

Tampa Bay re-grouped (00:20), as Mikhail Sergachev (98) bounce passed it off the boards, past Karlsson, onto Kucherov’s stick. Kucherov dropped it off for the hard-charging Point coming down the middle.

That’s when Marcus Sorensen (20) stepped up (00:26). Covering for Karlsson, the forward played admirable defense, stopping the emerging Lightning star in his tracks.

Undaunted, Point started a cycle (00:28). To the Sharks’ credit, their defensive rotations were tight, keeping the visitors to the perimeter.

Kucherov received the puck back in the corner (00:36). Dillon used his own underrated skating and stick to force Kucherov back to the point. Kucherov found a seam to blueliner Erik Cernak (81) between the circles, but Couture closed, blocking the shot.

Cernak switched with Kucherov (00:45), firing at Martin Jones. Masterfully, Karlsson re-directed his boot to block the puck — a staple Karlsson trick, he essentially kicked it to himself to jumpstart a 3-on-2 for San Jose.

Powered by his feet and stick, Dillon cut off Point. Point backhanded a pass to Hedman, who was down low (00:08). Hedman found a seam to Kucherov.

Karlsson actually lucked out here, as Kucherov was his guy. Kucherov didn’t one-time the pass, giving the Sharks’ defense some respite.

Karlsson made up for this gaffe a couple seconds later as he read another Hedman pass to Kucherov (00:13), sticking it away. Karlsson followed by using his feet to gain inside position on Kucherov.

He would also use his feet to guide the puck to Dillon, who cleared it.

San Jose’s forwards got caught deep on the forecheck. Tampa Bay had a chance at a 4-on-2, until Point’s pass eluded Kucherov in the far lane.

Sensing vulnerability, Karlsson flashed an impressive quickness, forcing Kucherov to the outside and to make a hurried drop pass that put the Lightning offside.

They say the best defense is a good offense.

Karlsson drew Kucherov, Johnson and Point to himself, then found an angle and seam to thread a perfect backhand pass to Couture in stride, giving the Sharks a brief 3-on-2.

Off the draw, Dillon was able to outquick Johnson to the puck, making a short pass to Karlsson. Karlsson drew in Kucherov, making a short pass to Meier. Meier drew in Point, making a short pass to Couture. With each Tampa Bay forward a step behind because of this outstanding puck support, Couture was able to skate it blueline to blueline.

“We dialed into our game and our attention to detail,” said Pete DeBoer.

It’s good to be able to rely on a little wizardry every once in a while to create some time and space.

Once again, Karlsson used skating and anticipation to step up on a Kucherov bid, this time a pass to Johnson (00:03).

The Lightning re-grouped (00:21) with Sergachev and Kucherov swinging back in unison.

The Sharks F1 (Meier) backed off on the puck carrier (Sergachev), perhaps anticipating a pass to Kucherov. Meier pressured Kucherov’s backside, taking away the middle, while Couture stepped up on the All-Star winger at the red line.

Kucherov side-stepped Couture, but entered the zone in Karlsson’s lane. Essentially, Kucherov was herded into the outside lane and Karlsson’s clutches. The Swede’s skating and stick took away the Russian’s immediate options, forcing a pass back to the point.

Point carried in with speed and found Kucherov in the slot, but Karlsson’s tight gap on the winger forced a miss.

Johnson admitted, “They were in our shot lanes, really took a lot of our time and space away.”

Per Natural Stat Trick, Karlsson’s numbers at 5-on-5 against Kucherov were not gaudy — the defender was on the ice for four scoring chances for, five against and zero high-danger opportunities either way.

But this doesn’t take away from Karlsson, Dillon and company’s by-and-large exemplary work.

“We knew they were going to create scoring chances no matter what we did,” Karlsson acknowledged. “But we stuck with it.”

“He’s at a whole different level recently,” noted DeBoer of Karlsson.

He added, about Dillon, “They were great. That’s as dangerous a group as there is in the league up front, particularly their top two lines, particularly the Kucherov line. We knew coming in that we were going to need everybody’s best effort.”