Erik Karlsson's teammates say he has always had their backs. Now it's their turn to be there for their captain.
Karlsson made an emotional return to the Ottawa Senators on Saturday in a 5-2 loss to the Carolina Hurricanes. Playing his first game since he and his wife Melinda announced Tuesday that their son Axel had been stillborn, a visibly moved Karlsson waved as he received a huge ovation from Ottawa fans when announced as part of the Senators' starting lineup.
The star defenceman had an assist and almost scored when his slapshot went off the post just under four minutes into the game, but after that Cam Ward and the Hurricanes took over to keep their slim playoff hopes alive. Carolina remained nine points back of New Jersey for the final Eastern Conference playoff berth with seven games remaining.
For the Senators, who have long been out of the playoff picture, Karlsson's return was worth far more than two points in the standings.
"It's great. You've seen it with the fans that everyone was happy to see him. Same with us when we us him (Saturday) morning we were all happy," said defenceman Thomas Chabot, who had one of the Senators' goals.
"He's a big part of our team as you know and the best player on our team so it's good to have him back. We would have rather had a better game than that for his comeback but it's just great to have him in the locker room and happy to just have him around."
Karlsson made a surprise return for the morning skate Saturday and his presence meant a lot to his teammates. "Huge," was how forward Jean-Gabriel Pageau described Karlsson's return.
"He's our captain, he's our best player, he's our leader and you want to be on the ice when he's on," Pageau said. "He's been there for all of us and we want to be there for him right now. We're all happy that he was back today."
Phillip Di Giuseppe and Jordan Staal had a goal and an assist each Saturday and Cam Ward made 34 saves to pace the Hurricanes and keep their slim playoff hopes alive.
Brock McGinn, Noah Hanifin and Jeff Skinner also scored for the Hurricanes (33-31-11) who remain nine points out of the final playoff berth with seven games remaining.
"Our team's got a lot of pride. I really believe in our guys and they want to do it right each and every night and not let each other down, so you've got to go out and play hard," Hurricanes coach Bill Peters said.
Bobby Ryan also scored for the Senators (26-37-11) while Mike Condon made 19 saves.
Hanifin and Skinner scored 69 seconds about in the mid stages of the third period to turn tight 2-1 game into a decisive lead.
Chabot scored at 16:34 to cut the lead to 4-2, before Staal scored into an empty net in the final minute.
"Through the first two periods we didn't get the bounces on our side. I thought we had chances and put a lot of pucks on net and then obviously in the third they came out and took the lead and it was too far to come back," Pageau said.
The Hurricanes scored the only goal of the second period to take a 2-1 lead, and to add insult to injury the Senators were assessed a bench-minor penalty on the play for delay of game.
McGinn had a great tip in the slot off a Klas Dahlbeck point shot to beat Condon through the legs, but the Senators challenged saying the Hurricanes had gone offside prior to the goal.
As a result of the failed challenge the Senators were penalized, but the Hurricanes managed just a single shot on power play.
The teams split first-period goals with the Hurricanes grabbing a 1-0 lead at 7:34 when Di Giuseppe beat Condon from a sharp angle.
Ryan tied the game at 9:38 as he stood at the top of the crease and tipped a Ryan Dzingel shot past Ward, who turned aside 11 shots in the period, including two breakaways.
After a turnover, Dzingel had a breakaway but was limited short on space and time as he only caught up to the puck about 20-feet in front of Ward. Minutes later Jean Gabriel Pageau had all kinds of time as he was all alone from the blue line in but Ward made a pad save.