While the Sharks made a big push late in an effort to at least tie Game 4 and force overtime for a second consecutive contest against the St. Louis Blues, one glaring detail caught everyone's attention: Erik Karlsson spent an awful lot of time on the bench.
Karlsson played only one shift in the latter half of the third period Friday night at Enterprise Center, taking the ice right at the end of the frame when Sharks goalie Martin Jones was pulled for an extra skater. Karlsson spent the rest of the period posted on the bench, frequently opening the door for his teammates as they exited the ice, and the defenseman's long absence was noticed.
Taking into consideration the long stretch of time he missed during the regular season with a groin injury, the Sharks defenseman's long stint on the bench understandably raised a few eyebrows. When asked about Karlsson's status after the 2-1 loss that evened the Western Conference final at two games apiece, Sharks coach Peter DeBoer simply said he didn't have an update to provide.
Karlsson has been a staple of the Sharks' success throughout their current playoff run. When healthy, he's been a big difference-maker. If something is ailing him, it could have a severe impact on how the Sharks play in their upcoming games.
As Sharks analyst Jamie Baker pointed out on NBC Sports California's postgame show, Karlsson didn't appear to play with as much jump in Game 4 as he had in the previous contest. Sure, fatigue is a factor, as he's played significant minutes through 18 playoff games. But sitting out for nearly half a period could be a sign that he aggravated his previous injury.
Given that the Blues have tried to rough up Karlsson at every opportunity throughout the series, there's a number of instances where he could have potentially gotten a little extra banged up.
The Sharks no doubt hope Karlsson isn't suffering from something major. In addition to logging big minutes on the blue line -- his 25:09 of ice time was second most among all Sharks in Game 4 -- he is responsible for setting up big plays for San Jose, as evidenced by the fact that he currently leads all playoff participants in assists (14). If something keeps Karlsson from using his speed to break out against St. Louis, San Jose could be short a weapon on both offense and defense.
Plus, if Karlsson isn't able to skate those big minutes, that time will end up being put on Brent Burns and Marc-Edouard Vlasic, who already are carrying a lot of responsibility defending against a heavy Blues offense. The absence of a healthy Karlsson on the blue line could give St. Louis' offense room to muscle down the ice with more ease.
Before anyone gets too worried, there's a chance Karlsson is perfectly fine and will get right back to helping the Sharks when the series returns to San Jose on Sunday afternoon for Game 5. The Sharks have shown they can rally when one of their big guns is hurt, but there's no denying that Karlsson's long stint on the bench at the tail end of Game 4 raises serious concerns.