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Senators' Karlsson emerging as a leader in playoffs

by Chris Stevenson

OTTAWA -- There could be a scenario in the Eastern Conference First Round series between the Ottawa Senators and Montreal Canadiens when a top defenseman knocked an opposing player out of the series with a big body check.

It probably wouldn't have been thought to be 6-foot, 180-pound Senators defenseman Erik Karlsson as the one who has delivered the biggest hit of the series.

Karlsson hit Canadiens defenseman Nathan Beaulieu in the second period of Game 3 on Sunday when he caught Beaulieu accepting a pass inside the Montreal blue line and stepped into him. The Canadiens said Tuesday that Beaulieu will be out for the duration of the best-of-7 series with an upper-body injury.

"That open-ice hit was perfect, a textbook body check. It gets the momentum going for your team," Senators forward Curtis Lazar said.

Senators defenseman Cody Ceci said, "I've seen him make a couple of big hits before, but that was probably one of the biggest. It definitely got us going. That's kind of out of his element. He stepped up and made a big hit like that."

The Senators are down 3-0 to the Canadiens and facing elimination in Game 4 at Canadian Tire Centre on Wednesday (7 p.m. ET; CBC, USA, TVA Sports), but they couldn't have asked much more from Karlsson, who might have played his best game as for the Senators in Game 3. He played 31:12, attempted 12 shots, had six hits and assisted on Ottawa's goal in a 2-1 overtime loss.

He was a force at each end of the rink. He played like a captain.

Karlsson was named the Senators' ninth captain before the regular season and it was understandable that some people might have wondered if, at 24 years old, he was ready for the responsibility.

The speculation looked justified when the Senators got off to a slow start and Karlsson's play was reflective of their own.

But after a coaching change and the return of defense partner Marc Methot, who missed the first 37 games with an injury, Karlsson's game flourished. He had 43 points in the last 47 games.

"He's definitely evolved as a player and a person throughout the whole year," Ceci said. "Especially lately, he's been playing unbelievable for us. He's been a leader on the ice and off the ice, as well. There's a lot to learn from a guy like that. I think he's proven himself."

Senators forward Mark Stone said, "Yeah, he's our best player. He brings it every night, not just offensively but he's been a rock at both ends of the ice. You look at the hit he made [Sunday] night, he's playing his heart out. That's all you can ask for."

When Dave Cameron took over as coach in early December, he assessed Karlsson's game this way: "I don't want to cut his home runs down; I want to cut his strikeouts down."

There have been a lot more home runs. Cameron said it's understandable Karlsson can't play as physically over the course of a season as he has in the Stanley Cup Playoffs.

"I've seen him be physical lots. A lot of guys like [Karlsson], it's hard to be that physical all the time because they just play too much," Cameron said. "When you play 30 minutes a game, you can't lay it on the line every night. Usually you'll see [Karlsson] cut the guy's hands off and take the puck that way. He skates through your hands. That's what the playoffs does. It ramps up the emotion, in the building and that.

"I think [Karlsson] just wants everybody to know that he's more than a one-dimensional player."

He has been doing that, and his teammates have taken notice.

"He is a leader and that's the biggest thing you ask of your captain," Lazar said. "You see what he's been able to do with his play. We went on that streak and he's the backbone of it. His play has picked up dramatically through the course of this season. You see the last game, the rushes with the puck and that hit. That's what you like to see from your captain. He's a true leader by example. I can say we've rallied around him this year."

Karlsson inherited the captaincy from Daniel Alfredsson, the most popular player in Senators history. When the Senators were down 3-1 to the Pittsburgh Penguins in the 2013 Eastern Conference Second Round, Alfredsson was asked if the Senators could win three games in a row and win the series.

"Probably not," he answered truthfully.

Karlsson had a different answer when asked if the Senators could come back from their 3-0 deficit against the Canadiens starting Wednesday in Game 4.

"Oh definitely," he said. "We take it one game at a time and even though we've been playing better and better as the series goes on, we still haven't found a way to win a game and that's what we have to do now. It's do-or-die, and we only focus on Wednesday and see what happens."

If the Senators are going to force a Game 5, they are going to need more of the Karlsson they saw in Game 3.

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