In the Stanley Cup Final, two players stood out to me. No one else seemed to pay much attention to either player. These two forwards brought speed, savvy and aggressiveness to their respective teams. But their contributions were undervalued, almost ignored by the media. So I thought I’d show how valuable these two players were for their teams.
I’ve highlighted seven goals which involve play from Pittsburgh’s Carl Hagelin (62) and San Jose’s Melker Karlsson (68). I’ve embedded the video of each goal, allowing people to see exactly why these two players are so effective. In each play, the common threads are pressure on the puck and the puck battle. In five of the seven goals, the sequence begins with the opponent in control of the puck. On the other two goals, there is a puck battle and in both cases, the opponent is closer to the puck just prior to the puck battle.
A player who can take his team from a situation where they are in an inferior spot and not only change that, but turn it all the way into a goal for their own team is providing tremendous value.
Both players created pressure and won puck battles. In the series, there were 21 even strength goals (excluding power play and empty net goals). These seven goals represent 1/3 of all the even strength goals scored in the series.
I should note these were not the only scores involving Hagelin and Karlsson. Karlsson scored a pair of goals, neither is covered here. He was also involved in Justin Braun’s Game 2 goal, helping to screen the goalie. By my count, Karlsson (six) and Hagelin (four) made a major contribution on 10 of the 21 even strength goals in the series.
Karlsson’s defense was key on three goals: the Joonas Donskoi overtime winner in Game 3, the Logan Couture goal to tie up Game 6 and the Brent Burns goal to open Game 5.
Couture Goal: Karlsson’s initial contribution is hard to notice, but it is there. About 33 seconds into the video is when Karlsson makes his first appearance. Ian Cole (28) collects the puck along the back wall after a puck battle in the corner. As Karlsson pressures him, Cole makes a mistake. His attempt to clear the puck goes to Brent Burns (88), who knocks the puck down just outside the blue line. Karlsson makes a great effort to go quickly from the goal line to outside the blue line, allowing for the Sharks to re-enter with an onside play and fast break towards the goal. Couture (39) scored two seconds after the entry, with Karlsson driving to the net front area.
Donskoi Goal: The second replay shows why Karlsson was so essential to the goal. He goes into full-on forecheck mode, first pressuring Cole (28), then Justin Schultz (4) forcing the giveaway. Against Cole and Schultz, Karlsson is giving up size, strength and experience. He’s also giving up his stick and a glove. But the pressure results in a rim attempt by Schultz which winds up on Donskoi’s (27) stick, whose momentum allows him to run a “give and go” with Tierney (50). Six seconds after Karlsson makes his “two hits on one play”, Donskoi fires the game winner.
Burns Goal: The scoring opened in Game 5 with Karlsson carrying the puck from his own zone, skating by Evgeni Malkin (71) in the neutral zone. As he approaches the Pens zone, he chips the puck down low, racing past defensemen Cole and Schultz and into the corner. Karlsson shouldn’t win the race to the puck down low, but he does. It is in almost the identical spot where he battled on the Donskoi goal. When he gets to the puck, he immediately backhands the it over to Burns who is alone behind the net. It is classic take a hit to make a play. Burns takes the pass, walks out in front of the net and scores the game’s first goal. It is worth watching Karlsson’s entire shift and note the amount of ice Karlsson covers. He starts at the left point in the offensive zone then goes to the right corner. After a blocked shot, he skates hard from his own goal line almost the entire length of the ice to prevent a fast break. And he winds up taking the puck nearly the length of the ice back the other way into the offensive zone, leading to the score.
Hagelin’s defense was key on four scores: the Nick Bonino game winner in Game 1, Phil Kessel’s goal in Game 2, Eric Fehr’s goal in Game 4 and his own goal in Game 5.
Hagelin Goal: Hagelin’s goal in Game 5 came after he pressured Brenden Dillon (4) into a turnover. As the play starts, Dillon has the puck. However, with Hagelin bearing down on him, Dillon has no time to look over his options for clearing the puck. Dillon can not find his best play and instead tries going up the wall. The puck is kept in the Sharks zone by Bonino (13) who sends the puck towards the net. Hagelin, after pressuring Dillon, made a beeline for the front of the net. The puck tips off of Hagelin for the score.
Fehr Goal: In Game 4, once again, it was Hagelin harassing Dillon, forcing the poor play. After a face-off win by San Jose, Dillon is forced to handle the puck under pressure from Hagelin. The pressure starts back at the goal line and is continuous until near center ice. Dillon can not make a clean play, he can only push the puck up the ice towards Joe Thornton (19). Two Penguins immediately descend on Thornton. In the subsequent pinpucking, Hagelin jumps past Justin Braun (61) to get to the loose puck, then carries it into the offensive zone. He feeds Fehr (16) for the game-clinching score.
Kessel Goal: In Game 2, Hagelin pretty much does everything but finish the score himself. He puts pressure on Roman Polak (46). With no time to settle a bouncing puck, Polak attempts a pass towards Dillon. The poor pass results in Dillon with the puck in awkward spot. Hagelin has no problem covering both Sharks defensemen. He goes over to Dillon and lifts his stick, cleaning stealing the puck. He even manages to push Dillon out of the play as he perfectly feeds Nick Bonino (13). Bonino pushes the puck over towards Kessel (81) for perhaps the easiest goal of his career. It is worth recapping what Hagelin did in about four seconds. 1. Pressure Polak; 2. Stick lift on Dillon; 3. Steal puck; 4. Push Dillon out; 5. Tape pass to Bonino. All in all, quite a sequence.
Bonino Goal: In the series opener, track Hagelin and San Jose’s Tomas Hertl (48) in the video. Hertl has position, perhaps five feet ahead of Hagelin. But as they head into the corner for the puck, Hagelin gets to it first, tips it over to Kris Letang (58) who feeds Bonino for the game winner. It was a loose puck, but not really a 50/50 puck. It was really more like 70/30 in favor of Hertl, but Hagelin’s anticipation allows him to blow past the passive skating Hertl and win the battle. Hagelin makes the play and three seconds later, Bonino buries the game-winning goal.
Some will note both Hagelin and Karlsson are Swedes and try to read something into it. Perhaps there is, but their paths to the NHL were very different. Karlsson played professionally in Sweden and did not play in North America until he was 24. Hagelin started playing in North America at age 19, spending four season at the University of Michigan before a brief AHL stint led to his NHL debut with the Rangers. Nationality may be a common thread, but these players have made their own success.
In the Stanley Cup Playoffs and especially in the Final, the spotlight’s attention goes to bigger names than Hagelin and Karlsson. But their play had a huge influence on the series. Former Sharks coach Todd McLellan dubbed Karlsson a “puck hunter.” It is a description which also fits Hagelin. They effectively harass opponents into making mistakes and use their energy to quickly turn those mistakes into opportunities for their own teams. If they continue to play as they have, the spotlight will find them.