To Erik Karlsson, a torn left Achilles tendon was not season-ending. Instead, the Ottawa Senators defenseman will play Thursday night at the Washington Capitals, just 10 weeks after suffering the gruesome injury.
Karlsson smiled when asked if he was in the lineup and responded, “What do you think?”
“Yeah, I’m in tonight,” he said. “I’ve been feeling good lately and I think it’s about time to play some hockey again.”
Karlsson’s Achilles was sliced by Pittsburgh Penguins forward Matt Cooke’s left skate Feb. 13. At the time, the diagnosis was that the Norris Trophy winner would miss four to six weeks.
“He said the day after it happened, he had surgery, he said two months,” captain Daniel Alfredsson said. “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.”
Yet here the Senators are, a victory away from clinching a spot in the Stanley Cup Playoffs and Karlsson is back after missing just 31 games.
“It’s awesome,” defense partner Marc Methot said. “I think we all had an idea yesterday practicing and how he was paired up with me, but it’s a refreshing sight to see. You could tell it brings a lot of energy out of all the guys. It’s new life into our dressing room. Even with Alfie, you could tell that he’s got a little hop in his step today, too. He’s got his Swedish buddy back, so it’s exciting.”
Coach Paul MacLean, who intentionally nonchalantly announced that Patrick Wiercioch was out and Karlsson was in, did not express concern about his team being too emotional on the night of the 22-year-old’s return.
“I think with the magnitude of today’s game and how important it is, the coach is going to make it pretty clear to us and remind us how important, in fact, this game is for clinching,” Methot said. “We realize that Karl’s been out for a long time. We can’t let him do it all himself. He might be a little rusty, who knows? But we’ve got to help him out as much as we can, too.”
MacLean and his staff will monitor Karlsson to make sure he handles game action OK, but the expectations are still high.
“Play 35 minutes, be the first star of the game, is that too much to ask?” MacLean joked. “Erik has obviously worked very hard to get back to be in the lineup. The doctors and the medical people have given everything the OK, so we just want him to come in and be him and do what he does.”
What Karlsson does is torment opponents by breaking out quickly and presenting an offensive threat from the blue line.
“If he gets a step or two on some guy I know he’s coming out with the puck and making a good pass. I’m not going to be too hard on him tonight because he hasn’t played in a long time, but you expect that and that’s big,” Alfredsson said. “I think he’s really, really good at breaking up the other team’s forecheck and finding an opening. Beating one guy and then drawing another to him before he makes a pass makes it a lot easier for me for sure. …
“He has that special ability with his vision and quickness that he can do things other guys can’t. That’s just the way it is. He’s pretty special that way.”
Karlsson beat every estimate in recovering from the torn Achilles, but he does not think he’s rushing back into the lineup.
“I think I’m good enough to play,” he said. “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 tonight and if not I’m probably not going to play ever again.”
Karlsson will wear cut-proof Kevlar socks against the Caps and for the rest of his career. He’s not letting what happened to him in February keep him off the ice, but he won’t leave anything to chance.
Caps center Nicklas Backstrom, considered wearing Kevlar socks but decided against it because they’re “too thick.” He and Marcus Johansson are happy to see their friend back on the ice, even though it’s against them.
“I think it’s great,” Backstrom said. “His recovery has been going faster than they were hoping. I think that kind of injury you don’t want to see in the league and I’m just glad to see him.”