DETROIT -- The Ottawa Senators almost had the storybook ending.
After making a surprise return from a foot injury in a key game in the race for the Stanley Cup Playoffs, captain Erik Karlsson had a chance to score late in regulation. He had a chance in overtime. He had another chance in OT. He set up another chance in OT. He had a chance in the shootout.
Karlsson failed to convert. The Detroit Red Wings defeated the Senators 5-4 at Joe Louis Arena on Monday when forward Evgeny Svechnikov, a 20-year-old rookie making his NHL debut, ended a seven-round shootout.
But it was a heck of a story even without the ending. Karlsson had a goal and an assist in a game-high 30:11 of ice time. The Senators came back after trailing 4-2 in the third period and got a point, putting them in third place in the Atlantic Division. They have 92 points, same as the Boston Bruins, but have one game in hand. They are four points ahead of the Tampa Bay Lightning; each team has four games to go.
"That's the story of our team right there," Senators coach Guy Boucher said. "We never expected Erik to be there. After the morning skate, after we do the media, going back to the hotel, get a phone call, and he's coming. 'What?'"
"So Erik's coming, he's a warrior," Boucher said. "At 4-2, our guys are battling and fighting and clawing, and that's the story. That's our season right there. That's us. It's been tough. It's been all kinds of stuff happening to us, but we battled back."
Karlsson injured his foot in a 3-2 shootout loss to the Philadelphia Flyers at Wells Fargo Center on Tuesday. He flew back to Ottawa to rehab and planned to try skating again Monday.
In the meantime, the Senators lost 5-1 to the Minnesota Wild at Xcel Energy Center on Thursday, lost 4-2 to the Winnipeg Jets at MTS Centre on Saturday and lost yet another defenseman to an injury: Cody Ceci. Marc Methot was already out.
The Senators needed Karlsson, a two-time Norris Trophy winner as the NHL's best defenseman and Ottawa's offensive and defensive catalyst. He entered the game with 68 points, second in the NHL among defensemen behind Brent Burns of the San Jose Sharks, and 10 more than any teammate, and 201 blocked shots, most in the League.
Would Karlsson have played if the Senators weren't in this situation?
"I don't know," Karlsson said. "We'll never find out, because we're in the situation we're in."
Video: OTT@DET: Karlsson nets PPG from below the goal line
Karlsson skated at the Senators' practice facility at 10 a.m. Monday, about an hour and a half before his teammates skated in Detroit. He felt good enough to play, so he called general manager Pierre Dorion, got the green light and jumped on a plane. Otherwise, he kept it quiet.
"I didn't really tell anyone, not even my teammates," Karlsson said.
It made for a dramatic entrance. Karlsson's No. 65 sweater was hanging in the locker room when he arrived at Joe Louis Arena about 5 p.m., two hours before game time.
"Nobody knew," Senators forward Kyle Turris said. "The word was that he was coming. He showed up."
Karlsson didn't just show up to show up. He showed up to perform as he usually does.
"You just put his name back to where it was," Boucher said. "If he says he's going to be there, that's because he's going to be there. We knew he wasn't just coming to be there half. You saw tonight. He had a big impact on the game, and it lifted our team. It created a lot of enthusiasm."
Karlsson wore a plastic guard on his left heel and took time to get going. But he got better as the game went on, and he was flying up the ice, stopping on a dime, doing his thing.
His goal was lucky in the sense that he flicked the puck at the net behind the goal line from the right-wing corner, and the puck somehow ricocheted off the inside of the right pad of goaltender Petr Mrazek and through his legs, tying the game 2-2 at 51 seconds into the third period.
But it came after he smoothly carried the puck up the ice on the rush, made a give-and-go with forward Mike Hoffman and retrieved the puck in the corner while being pursued by defenseman Danny DeKeyser. Good sign.
His chance at the end of regulation came when he raced up ice on the rush. Another good sign. He was all over the ice in an overtime of back-and-forth action and no whistles, an OT Turris called the most entertaining he had been a part of. Another good sign.
After the game, Karlsson headed back to the airport, only this time with the team. The Senators' five-game road trip is over. They play the Red Wings at Canadian Tire Centre on Tuesday (7:30 p.m. ET; TSN5, RDS, FS-D) in yet another big game, in yet another chance to write the story of their season.
"We've been on the road forever now," Boucher said. "So one game at home in front of our fans, and hope it's going to be full and people appreciate what these guys are going through, how hard they're working and how tenacious they are, and reward the players with the full barn. We can't wait to get back home."