SAN JOSE – The Sharks were dealt a significant blow after Game 2 of the Stanley Cup Final. Not only had they fallen into a 2-0 series hole by dropping a pair in Pittsburgh, the guy who was arguably their best forward to that point, Tomas Hertl, was lost due what is being reported as a knee injury.
Hertl has yet to practice with the team, including on Saturday, as the Sharks prepared for Game 6 at SAP Center on Sunday, attempting to extend the series to a deciding seventh game.
His replacement is a big reason the Sharks are still alive.
It wasn’t all that productive of a regular season for Melker Karlsson. Named as the Sharks’ rookie of the year for 2014-15, the 25-year-old managed just 10 goals and 19 points in 65 games. He couldn’t keep his place among the top six, either, often skating on the Sharks’ fourth line.
Lately, through, Karlsson has been huge. He’s scored goals in back-to-back games in the Final, including the game-winner late in the first period of Game 5 on Thursday.
Sharks coach Pete DeBoer recently said Karlsson has “found another level.” How has he been able to do it?
“It's confidence,” said the coach. “Melker has always brought a high IQ to the game, a high compete level. Plays both ends of the rink. He's honest. He's done that every game he's played this year for us. I don't think any of that has changed. [He’s] just feeling confident in creating offense.”
Karlsson said he owes his recent uptick in production to getting “more time in front of the net.” In games four and five, his scores came from shots between the circles.
Logan Couture, his linemate for the past game-and-a-half – and likely again in Game 6 – is seeing more of the Karlsson from last season, when he was dubbed as a “puck hunter” by former coach Todd McLellan. Karlsson was one of the few positive developments that came from that season.
“This is the way he played last year, and I think he’s gotten back to that,” Couture said. “It helps that he’s out there more. The big thing with him is his forechecking. He’s usually that first man in, and he wins those puck battles.”
DeBoer also pointed to Karlsson’s aggressive forecheck as a reason for his effectiveness of late. In Game 3, Karlsson helped force the turnover that eventually led to Joonas Donskoi’s game-winner.
“I think if you're a skill guy like Logan playing with him, you know he's going to create some turnovers with the way he forechecks,” DeBoer said.
Karlsson has sensed the chemistry with Couture, too.
“He’s obviously one of the best players here in the playoffs, so he’s been really good for us," Karlsson said. "He works hard both ways. It makes it easy.”
Hertl likely out for the rest of the series, Karlsson will need to keep his game at a high level if the Sharks are going to capture their first Stanley Cup.
“I’m just trying to help the team here,” Karlsson said. “[Hertl] did some real good stuff to make us win. We’ve got to get someone who can get in there and do the same thing.”