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Karlsson savouring heavier load on Sens blue line

by Rob Brodie / Ottawa Senators
Second-year defenceman Erik Karlsson leads all Senators in average ice time per game and logged more than 30 minutes twice in the last week. Not coincidentally, Ottawa won both games, with Karlsson having a hand in the deciding goal (Photo by Eliot J. Schechter/NHLI via Getty Images).
So Erik Karlsson might not have felt like starting his Friday by running a marathon.

But rest assured, when the puck drops again tonight at Scotiabank Place, the 20-year-old Ottawa Senators defencemen will still have plenty left in the tank to face the challenge provided by the Washington Capitals (7:30 p.m., TSN, Team 1200).

With the Senators' blue-line corps depleted by the injury absence of veterans Sergei Gonchar and Matt Carkner, they've asked their youngest member to take on a heavier workload. And he's responded in a major way.

Thursday night, Karlsson scored the shootout winner against New York Rangers goaltender Henrik Lundqvist, ending a duel that lasted five rounds. Afterward, he looked and sounded anything like a player who had just logged more than half an hour of ice time (30:18 to be exact).

That wasn't even his heaviest tour of duty this week, as Karlsson hit the 31:14 mark in last Saturday's 3-2 overtime victory over the Tampa Bay Lightning, in which he set up Jason Spezza's game-winning goal. At 23:34, he currently leads all Senators in average ice time per game. Don't expect that workload to lighten anytime soon.

"We’re not worrying about his fatigue," Senators head coach Cory Clouston said following a team meeting earlier today. "I made a joke (last night) halfway through the third that I didn’t think he’d even broken a sweat yet. He’s in great shape. He’s a special type of individual whose conditioning is outstanding. He doesn’t use a lot of effort to skate. Things come naturally and come easy for him. The more minutes he gets, it seems the more energy he gets.

"He’s not fatigued in any way, shape or form … He doesn’t carry any body fat, he’s not lugging around any extra weight. He’s very efficient in his skating and his game."

In Karlsson's mind, the wealth of ice time is no different to him than when he was an aspiring young player growing up in Landsbro, Sweden. He can't get enough of the game he loves.

"I feel good," he said. "It’s just fun to be on the ice. I’m enjoying every minute out there. It's nice that they trust me and it feels like I'm contributing, too. My body feels great. Everything is going well and we're winning games."

Indeed, the Senators (28-37-9), despite sitting in last place in the Eastern Conference and with their playoff hopes long ago extinguished, are 6-4-0 in their last 10 outings while proving to be a tough out for any opponent. Clouston said Karlsson's improved play has played no small part of that recent run.

"He’s always had that (ability)," Clouston said of the way Karlsson relishes the opportunity to be a difference maker. "Has he always made the right choice in the right place and made the right decisions? No, but he’s a young defenceman and it’s a learning process. In the last little while, he’s played very well and for the most part, made the right decisions, and been a key part of our success lately."

Karlsson, for his part, knows his perfomance level and ice time often go hand in hand.

"It's up to the coaches," he said. "If you've having a good game, then you can play some more. But there's going to be a night when you're not at your best and you're not going to play so much. I want to play as much as I can and I'm just liking it, playing this much."

Around the boards

The Senators assigned forward Roman Wick to the Binghamton Senators (AHL) this morning, clearing the way for Milan Michalek to return to the lineup against the Caps. The Czech winger hasn't played since suffering a broken foot on Feb. 26 and his return comes at least a week ahead of schedule. "I'm 100 per cent and I'm so excited to be back," said Michalek. "I just want to get back into the game. I'm healthy, so there's no reason (for me) to stay back" ... Goaltender Curtis McElhinney has taken a day away to tend to a family matter, so Mike Brodeur has been recalled from the farm and will back up starter Craig Anderson tonight ... Captain Daniel Alfredsson (lower back) is expected to join his teammates for the three-game road trip that begins Sunday in Atlanta against the Thrashers (2 p.m., Sportsnet East, Team 1200). Clouston suggested it's possible Alfredsson, who's been sidelined since Feb. 7, could play at some point. "We wouldn't take him if we thought there was a chance he wouldn't play," said Clouston. "There's certainly a possibility that he will."

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