When Ottawa Senators coach Paul MacLean met with reporters Thursday after the team's morning skate to announce the return of defenseman Erik Karlsson, he said the plan would be for him to play 35 minutes and be named the First Star of the game.
After Karlsson's performance Thursday against the Washington Capitals, MacLean should invest in lottery tickets.
Playing a game-high 27:11 in his first game back from injury, Erik Karlsson had the primary assists on both Senators goals in a 2-1 overtime win that allowed the team to clinch a playoff berth. (Photo: Patrick McDermott/NHLI)
Expected to need four to six months to recover from surgery to repair a 70-percent tear of the Achilles tendon in his left leg sustained during a game against the Pittsburgh Penguins on Feb. 13, Karlsson hit the ice 10 weeks to the day after the operation and looked like he never missed a beat.
Playing a game-high 27:11, Karlsson had the primary assists on both Senators goals in a 2-1 overtime win that allowed the team to clinch a spot in the Stanley Cup Playoffs. His eight shots on goal were more than any player who skated in one of the 11 games played Thursday.
Karlsson's return provided a boost to a team that kept its head above water despite also missing top-line center Jason Spezza, No. 1 goalie Craig Anderson and top forward Milan Michalek for long stretches this season. However, they had been sputtering recently and what seemed like a sure spot in the postseason had become an iffy proposition as the regular season neared its conclusion.
"I felt OK," Karlsson said after the game. "I battled some issues out there and didn't feel quite as comfortable as I'm used to, but overall it was a solid game. I still have to work through some mistakes and clean those up."
That he even has the chance to fix any mistakes in his game at this point in the season is amazing. After he suffered the Achilles tear, no one thought he'd play again before next season.
"We never thought he would be able to come back unless we went really far in the playoffs," Senators captain Daniel Alfredsson said.
However, no one told Karlsson that.
Defense - OTT
GOALS: 6 | ASST: 6 | PTS: 12
SOG: 71 | +/-: 7
"I've been feeling good lately and I think it's about time to play some hockey again," Karlsson said prior to the game. "I think I'm good enough to play. I don't know exactly what percentage it is. Obviously it's not the way it was before, but it's still good enough to be able to play hockey and hopefully I'll show that [Thursday]."
The 2012 Norris Trophy winner certainly showed why he rapidly is becoming one of the game's best.
At 12:35 of the second period, he called for a pass from Michalek and one-timed a rocket from the right point that Jakob Silfverberg redirected past Capitals goalie Michal Neuvirth to open the scoring.
And 47 seconds into overtime, he set up Sergei Gonchar's power-play goal to get the Senators back into the postseason.
"Erik shows the difference that he can make and the quality and type of player that he is," MacLean said after the game. "Obviously our team was a different team with him on the ice and the things that he can do that others can't do. He's a very special player, and to his credit he was up and running. He's done a ton of work in his rehab to get to this point. He was good and he was going.
"The same rules apply to everyone -- if you're going, we're going to play you. The best players play, and he was one of the best players."
Just like MacLean planned it.