WASHINGTON -- Ottawa Senators coach Paul MacLean said that if all goes according to plan, defenseman Erik Karlsson will skate 35 minutes and be named the game's No. 1 star Thursday against the Washington Capitals.
MacLean's comments were made with tongue firmly planted in cheek, but he can be excused for the over-the-top enthusiasm.
The entire Senators dressing room seemed to have a little extra jump after their morning skate Thursday as they prepared to welcome Karlsson back to their lineup with three games left in the regular season.
The reigning Norris Trophy winner has not played since Feb. 13, when he 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 22-year-old will return exactly 10 weeks after the operation.
"I've been feeling good lately and I think it's about time to play some hockey again," Karlsson said. "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]."
While much of the game-day banter in the visitor's room was light-hearted, there is no denying that Karlsson's return is a serious boost for a team that is on the verge of clinching its second straight Stanley Cup Playoff berth.
The Senators went 16-11-4 in Karlsson's absence and can secure a postseason with a win in Washington, or a Winnipeg Jets regulation loss Thursday against the Montreal Canadiens.
"A lot of people wrote us off as a team when [Karlsson] when down and [No. 1 center Jason Spezza] went down and [Milan Michalek] for a little bit," Marc Methot, Karlsson's defensive partner, said. "I think all the young guys, our goaltending -- everybody stepped it up and kind of remained in contention. And now that guys are coming back and healthy, we're still in a good spot and we're getting stronger as a team."
Karlsson led all NHL defensemen last season with 78 points in 81 games en route to winning the Norris Trophy, and had 10 points in 14 games this season. He joins a Senators blue line that was bolstered last week when Jared Cowen returned from a hip injury to make his season debut.
While Karlsson is expected to see a regular shift with Methot and quarterback the club's No.1 power play, MacLean noted he and the coaching staff will monitor Karlsson's progress throughout the game, just as they did when Cowan returned April 16.
"If he's doing fine we'll keep playing him, and if he struggles a little bit we'll cut back on what he's doing," MacLean said. "But he is obviously very excited to be back in the lineup and we look forward to his game [Thursday] and moving forward."
Added Karlsson: "I think that coach has a really good understanding of the game and I think he's going to realize what needs to be done. I know that he's going to take good care of me and the rest of the team and if it ends up that I'm playing 10 minutes, then I'll do that as long as its 10 good minutes. I don't want to be out on the ice if I don't feel that I'm playing good enough to be out there."
Karlsson's return to the lineup also could provide a spark for Ottawa's struggling offense. The Senators enter play Thursday having lost seven of 11 while scoring 20 goals over that stretch. For the season, only the Nashville Predators and Florida Panthers are averaging fewer than Ottawa’s 2.33 goals per game.
"We just expect to him come in and do what he does," MacLean said. "He hasn't scored a hat trick yet that I know of, since I've been here, so we can't expect him to do that. We just want him to come out and do what he does, and mostly what he does well is he gets the puck out of our end, and that's a big part of having success."
Author: Ben Raby | NHL.com Correspondent