WASHINGTON -- The flagging Senators got a big boost Thursday night when Norris Trophy-winning defenseman Erik Karlsson returned to the Ottawa lineup for the first time since being injured by Matt Cooke's skate blade on February 13.
The defenseman played a key role in the Sens' playoff-clinching 2-1 overtime win, recording 8 shots and assists on both tallies.
Although he had been sidelined with an Achilles injury for over two months and beat recovery predictions by months, Karlsson showed little rust in his first game, recording shots on his first two shifts, blasting a pair of pucks through traffic on Washington netminder on Michael Neuvirth. Healso showed little fatigue, logging a team-high 27:11 of ice time for the Senators,1:46 higher than fellow defenseman Sergei Gonchar.
"[I] felt OK," Karlsson said afterwards. "Did battle some issues out there. Didn't feel quite as comfortable as I used to but overall I think it was a solid, solid game. I still have to work through some mistakes and clean things up."
In the second period, Karlsson's blast from the point was deflected by Jokob Silfverberg past Neuvirth for a 1-0 lead, as his shot was tipped into the net.
After the Capitals forced overtime on Alex Ovechkin's third-period tally, the Senators got a power-play that carried into overtime. With the powerplay in extra time, Karlsson set up defensive partner Sergei Gonchar for the game-winner, blasting it past Neuvirth and punching the Senators' playoff ticket in a season where they hung on without one of their potent threats from the blueline.
Asked if being back or having a secured spot in the postseason made him happier, Karlsson said the latter.
"I would have been happy if I sat in the stands and we won this game," he said. "That's the main goal. I'm going to have to keep working on my stuff and as long as the team keeps winning I'll be happy."
But now, with Karlsson back, his presence allows the Senators to open up the game a bit more, and something which may prove useful in the playoffs - perhaps against the same Capitals.
Ottawa is tied for 6th in the East with the Rangers and Islanders with 54 points, but also has a game in hand thanks to the rescheduled game from the game in the aftermath of the Boston Marathon bombings.
Senators Paul MacLean kept the club together with a strong start despite losing Karlsson and Jason Spezza, and now gets one of his key weapons back as the playoffs approach.
"It's a tremendous credit to our players, first of all, with their perseverance through quite a bit of adversity this season," Senators coach Paul MacLean said. "For us to make the playoffs with the circumstances we were put under early in the season was a great accomplishment by the group and the players deserve all the credit."
"We came [to Washington] yesterday with the goal to get two points and we had an OK game, we got the two points and we should be happy with that," Karlsson said.
And with the Norris winner back on the Ottawa blueline, the Senators' playoff prospects brighten significantly.
"I think Erik shows the difference that he can make and the quality and type of player he is," MacLean said. "Obviously our team was a different team with him on the ice and the things that he can do that others can't do. t
"He's a very special player and to his credit he was up and running. He's done a ton of work in his rehab to this point and he was good and going. The same rules apply to every one: if you're going we're going to play. The best players play and I thought he was one of our best players."
"I think we were kind of cautious of what to expect from him but we knew his capabilities," Senators captain Daniel Alfredsson said. "He was great tonight, creating a lot more openings for everybody else, just the small plays. It's awesome to have him back."