Aren't the personal, one-on-one battles of the playoffs great?
Going into the opening round of the playoffs against the mighty and storied Chicago Blackhawks, most analysts were giving the 'Hawks skilled lines an edge over the Phoenix Coyotes gritty style of defense-first hockey. I admit, though I favored the Coyotes with my choice, I thought the young guys would struggle against some of the top NHL players and it would take an outstanding performance from Mike Smith to win the series for the Coyotes.
But what I didn't count on was the outstanding play of young Oliver Ekman-Larsson. Constantly being thrown on the ice against the likes of Patrick Sharp, Jonathan Toews and Patrick Kane, OEL not only held his ground, but succeeded in a way I honestly did not think he was ready for.
First off, let's clear the stat-filled air. Yes, OEL finished the series with a -3 and Kane a +1, but aside from that, the two are pretty darn similar. OEL (a defenseman) finished with just one point less than Kane (a top-line forward) in the series. OEL averaged 26:31 of ice time per game compared to Kane's 21:58. OEL had 12 shots, Kane 16.
Comparable stats, yes. Until you look just a small bit closer. OEL, a 20-year-old kid playing in his first-ever NHL playoffs, was matching the offensive production of Patrick Kane, former Calder Memorial Trophy winner, NHL All-Star and Stanley Cup winner. Some say Kane had a rough series or was struggling in his role as a center, but there was another factor in Kane's way: Oliver Ekman-Larsson.
"I've played against top players all season, so, I mean, he's a really good player and I just tried to shut him down and I think I did pretty good," said Ekman-Larsson during a media availability after the team returned to Phoenix following their series-clinching win over Chicago.
"Pretty good" in the words of OEL, but I would describe it more along the lines of outstanding. A major factor in shutting Kane down, OEL was constantly in his pocket if the two were on the ice together. More than once, the two could be found at the end of the play, locking each other up and participating in that little extra the NHL permits after the play.
A shutdown defender plays like Ekman-Larsson. He's always around the stars and skill players, hassling them and working to intimidate them or make them lose focus. But those shutdown guys rarely score. While OEL's three points may not seem significant, that's an average of .5 points per game. Not only was he the only Coyote with more than one shot on goal after a bad first period of offense in Game 6, but he scored the game-winner.
And Ekman-Larsson is garnering international attention. There were numerous times throughout the series that I noticed tweets commending his play, especially his discipline against the speedy and tricky Kane. When you have international media, normally not the biggest fans of the Coyotes, praising the team's youngest defender, he must be doing something right.
While I can't give all the credit to Ekman-Larsson for keeping one of the scariest threats in the NHL quiet, I can give him a lot. Kane is so good because he takes defensemen on and has the potential to embarrass them almost at will. There is a reason that he's one of the brightest stars in the league. But there is also a reason that, in overall play, he was out-shined by OEL.
However, despite their battles, OEL said there isn't a rivalry brewing between the two young stars.
"I don't know," he said. "I just try to play hard every shift. I don't care if I play against Kane or someone else, I just try to play hard."
You may not think there's something going on there, Ekman-Larsson, but I do. I can't wait to watch the high-class, cheap shot-free battle again. And, in case anyone is keeping score, OEL has a 1-0 lead in that series.