The Ottawa Senators will have their top defenceman back in the lineup for the stretch drive of the regular season.
Erik Karlsson will play Thursday night in Washington, just 10 weeks after suffering a torn left Achilles tendon that was expected to sideline him for the rest of the season.
“I’ve been feeling good lately and I think it’s about time to play some hockey again,” Karlsson said at the pregame skate.
It’s an improbable return that is expected to boost the Senators, who can clinch a playoff spot with a victory over the Capitals.
“It’s a refreshing sight to see,” defence partner Marc Methot said. “You could tell it brings a lot of energy out of all the guys. It’s new life into our dressing room.”
Karlsson’s Achilles tendon was sliced by the left skate of Pittsburgh Penguins forward Matt Cooke on Feb. 13. The gruesome injury was expected to keep the 22-year-old Norris Trophy winner out for four to six months.
“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.”
Karlsson ended up missing 31 games.
Coach Paul MacLean said he’s not concerned about his team being too emotional Thursday due to Karlsson’s return.
“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,” MacLean. “We’ll monitor it much like we did with Jared Cowan, how much he’s going to play and how he’s doing, and 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.”
Karlsson said he doesn’t think he’s rushing back. For the first eight weeks after surgery, he wasn’t sure about returning this season but knew once he got back on the ice it was possible.
“I think I’m good enough to play,” Karlsson 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.”
His friends in the Capitals’ dressing room know the challenges the talented defenceman possesses, but they’re nevertheless happy he’s back.
“It’s unfortunate and I felt bad for him because he’s a great guy and a great hockey player,” said forward Marcus Johansson, who has played with or against Karlsson since they were 16 years old. “You don’t want to see stuff like that happen, but I’m glad he’s getting healthy.”