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ERIK KARLSSON - Ottawa’s star blue-liner missed 31 games with an Achilles tendon injury and immediately made an impact upon his return. He assisted on both goals in a 2-1 victory over Washington that clinched a playoff spot for Ottawa. If last year’s Norris Trophy winner displays his usual form, the injury-riddled Senators may just keep up their surprising ways in the post-season. (Nick Wass/The Associated Press)
ERIK KARLSSON - Ottawa’s star blue-liner missed 31 games with an Achilles tendon injury and immediately made an impact upon his return. He assisted on both goals in a 2-1 victory over Washington that clinched a playoff spot for Ottawa. If last year’s Norris Trophy winner displays his usual form, the injury-riddled Senators may just keep up their surprising ways in the post-season. (Nick Wass/The Associated Press)

Roy MacGregor

Erik Karlsson strives to regain top form Add to ...

He even has a date circled for when he might finally return to form.

“January 23, 2014 – maybe.”

By then, of course, it may be too late, for if the Ottawa Senators are to have any hope of dealing with Sidney Crosby, Evgeni Malkin, Jarome Iginla, Kris Letang and the rest of the No. 1-seeded Pittsburgh Penguins, they are going to need Erik Karlsson to be Erik Karlsson.

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Surely you remember the slick little defenceman who, having just turned 22, won the Norris Trophy last June as the NHL’s top defenceman, the kid with the water-spider moves and the five-speed transmission who is at the core of whatever attack the Senators can muster.

And attack they must, having lost Game 1 of their Eastern Conference semi-final by a score of 4-1 and hoping to gain a split in Pittsburgh Friday night at Consol Energy Center.

Karlsson was joking Thursday when he said his full recovery might still be more than eight months away, but there is no doubt that he has yet to reach the level he was playing at on Feb. 13, that unlucky day when the skate of Pittsburgh agitator Matt Cooke sliced through 70 per cent of Karlsson’s left Achilles tendon.

He is tied for the team lead in playoff scoring – six points on a goal and five assists – with captain Daniel Alfredsson, but he is still not the Erik Karlsson who so impressed the hockey world last year and who, early this shortened season, appeared to be moving to an even higher level.

“I don’t think his play is close to what he was before he was injured,” Ottawa’s head coach, Paul MacLean, said Wednesday. “He was a dominant, dominant player, possibly the best player in the league at the time of his injury.”

The points may be there, but the more important point is that Karlsson is not the force he can be when healthy. He does not seem to pivot as well as he did.

Karlsson does not have the instant acceleration that had long-time hockey observers saying his variable speeds reminded them of the legendary Bobby Orr. In the opening series against the Montreal Canadiens, fleet Tomas Plekanec made Karlsson look flat-footed. In Game 1 against the Penguins, Karlsson appeared to lack the darting ability that might have kept a Chris Kunitz or Pascal Dupuis at bay.

“I feel good,” Karlsson said following a brisk practice. “I don’t think I should complain. It is what it is. I don’t think I could have felt any better at this time.

“Every time you’ve been away for a long time and other guys have kept it up, it goes up and down, and right now you’ve got to figure things out to be successful. But I think you’ve just got to keep going and try out, and sometimes it works out and sometimes it doesn’t.”

Told about MacLean’s comment, Karlsson had no inclination to argue. “I don’t think he’s the only one,” he said. “You could probably ask a lot of people and they would probably say the same thing, including myself. I’m not playing the way I did when I got hurt and that’s just the way it is.

“I’m trying to figure it out.”

The hockey world was amazed when Karlsson came back far sooner than expected. Many thought he would miss the entire season, no matter how deep his team might go in the playoffs, yet he was back playing just before the playoffs began.

“I knew it wasn’t going to be easy, especially pretty much going in, straight into the playoffs,” he said. “The game changed a lot from the regular season to the playoff season.

“You’ve just got to deal with the situation.”

Karlsson’s defence partner, Marc Methot, also has to deal with the situation. Methot says it is impossible that he, or any other defenceman on the team, could somehow “compensate” for Karlsson, but they can help.

Methot says he is trying to manage breakouts without always relying on Karlsson and his skills.

“It takes a little more pressure off him and maybe won’t tire himself out as much,” Methot said Thursday. “But he’s handling himself pretty well. You’ve got to remember that all these teams are keying in on him, especially come playoff time. They know what to expect from him and how special he is.

“[But] there’s only so much he can do. We’ve got to help him out.”

Karlsson believes that he is getting there, if slowly, and that each game is an improvement. For the Senators’ chances, it can’t happen fast enough, given the power of the Penguins and their easy, early lead in the series.

“Every once in a while it works and you feel pretty good out there,” Karlsson said. “Every once in a while something happens. I’ve just got to figure it out and go from there. I can’t do anything about it. I just got to find a way to be more consistent.

“I had hoped I was going to be able to play more this year, and it didn’t look good for a long period of time.

“But here I am, and at least I’m standing up.”

@RoyMacG

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