Storybook finishes tend to follow certain timeworn scripts. Boy meets girl. Good triumphs over evil. Against all odds, an athlete heroically comes back from serious injury and leads his team to victory in the big game.
For the Ottawa Senators' Erik Karlsson, Thursday night's return to the lineup following a 31-game absence because of a lacerated Achilles tendon met most of the aforementioned criteria – right up to the Hollywood ending.
Playing against the Washington Capitals with a playoff berth on the line, Karlsson set up Jakob Silfverberg for the game's first goal and Sergei Gonchar for the overtime winner on the power play to give the Senators a well-earned 2-1 win.
Gonchar, who broke into the NHL with the Capitals, scored on a slap shot with the Senators enjoying a four-on-three power play, thanks to Mike Ribeiro, who took his second undisciplined minor penalty of the third period.
With the victory, the Senators clinched a playoff spot for the second year in a row – and they did it despite a season of adversity, most of it stemming from serious injuries to pivotal players. At different times this season, they've played without Jason Spezza, their No. 1 centre; Craig Anderson, their No. 1 goaltender; Milan Michalek, last year's leading goal scorer, and of course, Karlsson, the reigning Norris Trophy winner and the catalyst to their offensive game.
With the free-wheeling Karlsson in the lineup, the Senators were one of the NHL's most dynamic scoring teams. Without him, they relied on a close-checking style that required strict attention to the defensive side of the game. The Senators played unexpectedly well in Karlsson's absence – posting a 16-11-4 record – but his return provided a renewed level of energy for a team that is clearly excited about the possibilities of what may lie ahead in the playoffs.
Coach Paul MacLean planned to monitor Karlsson's effectiveness and dole out ice time, depending upon how much he could handle. Clearly, it was a lot. By the end of the second period, Karlsson had played 14 minutes 12 seconds, was back playing a regular shift with partner Marc Methot, and was quarterbacking the team's power play. By the end of regulation, he'd played more minutes (25:26) than any player on the ice.
Sometimes, players get by in their first game back on adrenalin alone, but their timing, their rhythm and their ability to keep up with the pace of the game takes a while to get used to. Karlsson hardly seemed as if he missed a beat.
"We had a good feeling going into the season," Karlsson told TSN postgame. "We had a great year last year and a good first round and I think we expected ourselves to be a playoff team this year. It feels good to prove that to ourselves."
Karlsson acknowledged some rust in his game and said he didn't think it met his usual standards, but then his usual standards are higher than most.
After a scoreless first period, Silfverberg gave the Senators a 1-0 lead at the 12:35 mark of the second, tipping Karlsson's shot from the right point past Michal Neuvirth, the Washington goaltender. Michalek made the play possible, retrieving his own rebound after a Neuvirth stop, and circling behind the net before getting the puck back to Karlsson. Karlsson's shot was heading wide, but Silfverberg got his stick up on the puck and redirected it past Neuvirth.
Neuvirth was playing in place of Capitals starter Braden Holtby, who was in goal two nights earlier when Washington locked up a playoff spot with a victory over the Winnipeg Jets. Considering it was only Neuvirth's third game in the past 15, he turned in a steady performance, as the Senators peppered him with 38 shots through the end of regulation.
It looked as if the Senators had opened up a two-goal lead early in the third period when defenceman Jared Cowan jammed in a loose puck in the Capitals' crease. But referee Tim Peel immediately waved the goal off, ruling that Senators rookie forward Mika Zibanejad had bumped into Neuvirth and interfered with his ability to stop the puck.
It was an important sequence given that soon afterward, the Capitals' Alex Ovechkin contributed his league-leading 32nd goal of the season to tie the game at 1-1. Ottawa had a 15-1 edge on the third-period shot clock, when the Capitals Marcus Johansson skipped a pass over Chris Phillips's stick that went right to Ovechkin, skating hard down the right side. Ovechkin cut inside Phillips and used his reach to slip a backhand around Anderson into the net.
It was a night of scoreboard watching all around the NHL, with the New York Rangers officially claiming the seventh playoff spot in the Eastern Conference with a 4-3 overtime win over the Carolina Hurricanes, and it left the Winnipeg Jets dangling in limbo, knowing the only sequence that would keep them alive would be a Washington victory over the Senators. It didn't happen. So Ottawa is in, the Rangers are in, and the Jets were eliminated while their game against the visiting Montreal Canadiens was going on.