WASHINGTON -- As the Ottawa Senators prepared Thursday to welcome Erik Karlsson back to the lineup for their game against the Washington Capitals, captain Daniel Alfredsson couldn't help but admire his 22-year-old teammate.
Karlsson has not played since Feb. 13, when the defenseman sustained a 70-percent tear to the Achilles tendon in his left leg during a game against the Pittsburgh Penguins. Karlsson underwent surgery the next day and was expected to miss four to six months. Instead, the reigning Norris Trophy winner will return exactly 10 weeks after the operation.
"He said the day after it happened, he had surgery, he said two months," Alfredsson said of Karlsson's timetable. "And we knew that was not possible. We never thought he would be able to come back unless we went really far in the playoffs. But he's been positive the whole time through and been encouraged by what he's been able to do and worked hard to get here. It's great to see."
Karlsson missed 31 games with the injury but rarely took a day off from rehab. Returning before the end of the season was Karlsson's goal, but even he admits doubts crept in. It wasn't until he began skating again on April 8, he said, that the goal of returning this season truly felt attainable.
"Every time that I stepped out on the ice, it felt better and better every day, and even though it was really small steps at the beginning I knew that I was going in the right direction," Karlsson said.
"Early this week I really started feeling that the power was coming back more and more, and every day that I wake up I feel better than I did the previous morning."
Karlsson led NHL defensemen with 78 points in 81 games last season and has 10 points in 14 games this season. Coach Paul MacLean said he will monitor Karlsson's minutes, but he is expected to play a regular shift with Marc Methot on Ottawa's top defensive pairing and quarterback the club's No. 1 power-play unit.
"I'm trying to keep up with him to be honest with you," Methot said. "Even on the ice here [at practice], it helps. He brings my game up. He's the kind of guy that he'll help me elevate my game. I've got to keep up with him and it forces me to work harder to get back into good spots for him. I'm looking forward to that challenge again."
It's a challenge Methot embraces, but one he concedes he never thought he'd face again this season. Like most of Karlsson's teammates, Methot figured a best-case scenario would have seen Karlsson return deep into the Stanley Cup Playoffs; having the Senators' No. 1 defenseman back before the end of the regular season barely entered his thoughts.
"No, not at all," Methot said. "Are you kidding? I don't think anybody did. I'd like to think that most people were writing him off for this season, or at least come playoff time. … But [Karlsson], he's been in good care on our team. All the training staff have done a wonderful job helping him out, and it's a credit to him as well as a hard-working individual, and he wanted to get back real bad."