When Norris Trophy winner Erik Karlsson went down with a 70-percent tear in his left Achilles tendon on Feb. 13, not even the most enthusiastic Ottawa Senators fan could have expected he'd be back so soon.
But when the Senators took the ice Thursday night at Verizon Center against the Washington Capitals, there was Karlsson, wearing his familiar No. 65 and racing around like nothing had happened.
Coach Paul MacLean joked before the game that his plan for Karlsson was to have him play 35 minutes and be named the game's First Star. Karlsson played "only" 27:11 and didn't get any of the three stars, but he did have the primary assists on both Ottawa goals as the Senators won 2-1 in overtime to clinch a berth in the Stanley Cup Playoffs.
Any doubts that Karlsson was ready to go were dispelled by his stat line -- he finished with 12 attempted shots, eight of which were on goal.
Defense - OTT
GOALS: 6 | ASST: 8 | PTS: 14
SOG: 79 | +/-: 8
He's anticipating improvement before Senators begin the playoffs.
"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."
The return of Karlsson provides a whole different look to a team that had to scratch and claw for every goal. Karlsson plays in all situations, leads the power play, and provides the kind of scoring numbers most teams would be happy to get from a top-six forward.
His return is also a morale boost to a team that endured the lengthy absences of Karlsson, top-line center Jason Spezza, goaltender Craig Anderson and high-scoring forward Milan Michalek, as well as sputtered down the stretch and saw what looked like a sure playoff berth become a lot less sure in the past couple of weeks.
Not even Karlsson's teammates thought he'd be back this quickly; most people didn't expect him to return until next season
"He said the day after he had surgery [he'd be out] two months," captain Daniel Alfredsson said Thursday. "We knew that was not possible. We never thought he would be able to come back unless we went really far in the playoffs."
However, no one told Karlsson he was supposed to take the rest of the season off to heal.
"Erik shows the difference that he can make and the quality and type of player that he is," MacLean said. "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."
"That point" is leading his team back to the playoffs -- even if it means making one concession to his injury: Karlsson now wears special protective socks to prevent another skate cut. Though he finds them uncomfortable, he knows their value is worth a bit of discomfort.
"It doesn’t really matter what you wear," he said, joking. "I can play in bare feet if I have to."