Lars William “Wild Bill” Karlsson earned his ironic nickname during his first training camp with the Anaheim Ducks.
But unlike his gunfighting namesake, Karlsson wasn’t known for his shot until this season.
After being selected by the Golden Knights in the expansion draft, Karlsson spent the summer in his native Sweden training with a shorter stick. He also changed the lie of his stick so it rests flatter on the ice and started using the same curve as countryman Victor Rask of Carolina.
“I just wanted to switch it up,” Karlsson said. “I just feel more compact having the puck. It’s easier to protect it. Some just small changes, but maybe made a huge difference.”
The soft-spoken Karlsson finished third in the regular season with 43 goals and teamed with wings Jonathan Marchessault and Reilly Smith to form one of the league’s best lines during 5-on-5 play.
When the Golden Knights face Los Angeles in the opening round of the Stanley Cup playoffs starting Wednesday at T-Mobile Arena, Karlsson’s potential matchup against Kings center Anze Kopitar will be one of the keys to the best-of-7 series.
“They’re going to play a lot of minutes,” Knights coach Gerard Gallant said. “They’ve been a big part of our group obviously, and to get Reilly Smith back healthy is huge for our group and our team because he does so many good things for us. That’ll be a big line for us, for sure, but it’ll be no bigger than our fourth line and our third line and our second line. We need everyone to win hockey games, and that’s how we won all year long.”
In his first three NHL seasons, Karlsson produced 18 goals and never posted a shooting percentage better than 10.3 percent. But he tied for the league lead this season in shooting percentage among regulars with Colorado’s Alexander Kerfoot at 23.4 percent.
For comparison, Kerfoot scored 19 goals on 81 shots on goal, 103 fewer shots on goal than Karlsson.
Before Smith’s injury March 6 at Columbus that sidelined him for 15 of the final 16 games, the Knights’ top line played more minutes together and scored more goals during 5-on-5 play than any line in the league, according to statistics at Corsica.hockey.
The trio’s plus-23 goal differential at 5-on-5 was No. 1 in the league at the end of the season, and their 46 even-strength goals ranked second, one behind Colorado’s top line of Nathan MacKinnon, Mikko Rantanen and Gabriel Landeskog.
Karlsson topped the NHL with a plus-49 rating, while Marchessault was second (plus-36) and Smith was seventh (plus-31).
“Obviously we had some off nights,” Marchessault said. “I remember one game against Dallas and Nashville, I think they made our life difficult out there. We didn’t have necessarily the success we wanted, but most of the nights, if we play fast and the right way, we get our chances. If we’re able to bury our chances — because it’s all about that in the playoffs, it’s about to bury your chances — if we do that, we’ll be good.”
The Kings likely will counter with Kopitar between wings Dustin Brown and Alex Iafallo, which is one of the league’s top defensive units at even strength.
Kopitar’s line allowed 16 goals during 5-on-5 play in 74 games. Of the 16 lines that played more than 500 minutes together, three allowed fewer even-strength goals than Los Angeles’ top line.
During the home-and-home series with the Knights in February, Kings coach John Stevens primarily used Kopitar’s line with defensemen Drew Doughty and Derek Forbort against Karlsson’s line, and could opt for a similar tactic with the final line change at home.
Forbort (lower body) is not available for the start of the series against the Knights, and Oscar Fantenberg skated with Doughty in practice this week.
“I think throughout the season we’ve rolled four lines pretty good, so I’d be surprised if we have a matchup-driven series,” Smith said. “But they have a couple top lines that can score and play well defensively. We’ll have to have a little added attention to that.”
Kopitar led the Kings with 92 points (35 goals, 57 assists) and is a leading candidate for the Selke Trophy as the best defensive forward.
In the Knights’ two victories over Los Angeles, Kopitar went scoreless and was on the ice for two even-strength goals, including Karlsson’s tally midway through the first period Nov. 19.
When the Kings swept the home-and-home on Feb. 26 and 27, Kopitar totaled five points (two goals, three assists) and had an even plus-minus rating despite being on the ice for two even-strength goals by Karlsson’s line.
“It would be a definite privilege to play against a high-quality player like (Kopitar) and definitely one of the matchups I would like,” Marchessault said. “We’ve got to know he’s out there. Limit time and options to him, but if we play a fast game and support each other all over the ice like we usually do, I think we’ll be fine.”