Winning Play: The Other Karlsson

ST. LOUIS, Mo. — Forming a successful line isn’t just about putting your most-skilled players together.

In March, I mused about who should slide next to Joe Thornton and Kevin Labanc on the San Jose Sharks’ third line. Marcus Sorensen, who is probably not among the team’s top-nine most-skilled forwards, earned the job.

Peter DeBoer said then of Sorensen:

“He plays such an honest game. Straight line speed,” DeBoer indicated. “But he also plays much bigger than his size. He gets inside people. He gets in and wins battles and pucks.”

“Joe Thornton wants the puck. He wants to control it in the offensive zone. He needs guys that are able to get in there and get it for him. Marcus does a great job of that.

To close the regular season, the Sorensen—Thornton—Labanc trio was probably the squad’s most consistent.

The post-season, however, has been an up-and-down ride for them, from taking over Game 1 against Colorado to being broken up during Game 2 of this series.

Sorensen was scratched for last night’s 5-4 overtime victory over the St. Louis Blues. In his place, Melker Karlsson was promoted, to the consternation of some fans. In terms of pure skill, Joonas Donskoi was the obvious replacement.

Except the same reasons why Sorensen grabbed a seat next to Thornton and Labanc apply to Karlsson.

DeBoer noted: “Melker plays a similar game to Marcus Sorensen.

“He’s a little bigger body. He had good energy. He’s fresh. He doesn’t have the 15-minutes-a-night miles that some of the other guys do.

“He brought some straight-line speed and energy to that group.”

Reading between the lines, DeBoer seemed to be suggesting that the 5-foot-11 Sorensen might be a little worn down. It’s not a wild thought: Sorensen has skated for 96 regular season/playoff contests this year. His previous high, according to Elite Prospects, was 78 total games between the Sharks and the San Jose Barracuda in 2016-17.

Regardless of why Karlsson drew in for Sorensen, to a man, the Thornton line looked fresher last night.

This was classic Jumbo. He sold the pass back to Justin Braun (61), Robert Thomas (18) bit hard. Turning around, Thornton trusted Karlsson’s (68) size and speed, bouncing a dump-in off the boards.

Would a tired Sorensen have won this 50-50? It’s hard to say, but Karlsson beat Robert Bortuzzo (41) to the puck, keeping it alive. This all led to Thornton’s first goal since Game 1 of the Avs series:

Speaking of classic Jumbo, Thornton made an eerily similar pass to assist his second goal.

Labanc (62) dropped it off for Thornton. Thornton held, luring three pairs of St. Louis eyes toward him; they perhaps expected a return to Labanc. Labanc covered, Thornton took what was given when the third Blue (Jaden Schwartz, 17) strayed from his defense of the point: He threw it back to Erik Karlsson (65).

In Jumbo-like fashion, Karlsson absorbed contact from Vladimir Tarasenko (91) to make a play, clearing the lane for Brenden Dillon (4) to fire away. Labanc claimed the rebound, nobody took Thornton, and the 39-year-old suddenly had the first multi-goal playoff game of his career.

Erik Karlsson said of Thornton: “We’re both dishers out there. He has about 7,000 more than me. But to be this long in the league and still have a passion for the game, he’s gone through it all.

“He’s still doing what he has to do for this team to be successful, I think that speaks a lot about the character. I think that drives this team.”