OTTAWA – Christmas came nine days early.
Invasive, seldom-performed foot surgery in which doctors plucked out half of his ankle bone and replaced it with an artificial tendon. No training all summer. Zero camp. One week of practice, then into the fire against a league off and running with a two-week head start.
Toss in rampant trade speculation, the extrication of security-blanket defence partner Marc Methot, the pressure of playing for your next contract, and a franchise in disarray off the ice and free fall on it.
No wonder Karlsson — who took to the great outdoors Saturday night with a minus-18 rating and one lonely goal — looked like someone had been stuffing Kryptonite rocks into his skates.
“Everyone knows he’s Superman,” Boucher said, “but it was clear to me that it wasn’t before Christmas that we’d see the real Erik Karlsson — and that’s what’s happening now.”
If the loyal and long-johned Ottawa fans felt like they were getting Scrooged by the hockey club’s owner on the eve of their showcase celebration of the National Hockey League’s 100th anniversary game, well, Karlsson doffed the Clark Kent glasses he’s been wearing since Sweden, smeared on eye-black, pulled a balaclava over his gorgeous face, and donned a red cape.
Part Santa (he gave), part Superman (he saved), Karlsson delivered an all-world performance for nearly 34,000 supporters, many of them tweeting #MelnykOut with frigid fingers, in the Sens’ 3-0 dismantling of the Montreal Canadiens at Lansdowne Park.
“Oh, this was 100 tonight. Absolutely,” Boucher said. “When Erik defends that well, that hard, the rest of his game follows. He was outstanding tonight. We definitely rely on our captain.”
Karlsson skated an incredible 32:55 in biting, feels-like-minus-18°C weather that plummeted during each intermission and sank into the players’ bones during the numerous TV and snow-shovelling timeouts the contest required.
“I was like, ‘This building’s going to empty out’ when I figured out it was that cold in the first 10 minutes,” said Bobby Ryan, who scored the Sens’ second after burgling Jonathan Drouin. “Canadians are nuts, I guess.”
Karlsson’s ice time broke an outdoor game record. So did his eight blocked shots. Those pucks, Karlsson admitted, stung extra in the elements.
There’s more. Karlsson led all players with seven shots, was the only Senator on the ice for all three goals, and the winner — tipped deftly by big-game role player Jean-Gabriel Pageau (no, he did not eat a chicken Parm for lunch) — came off an EK65 blast from the point after Ottawa won an O-zone face-off.
A four-point game against a bitter rival bookended by controversy and pageantry and stuffed with cameos — Bryan Adams! Prime Minister Trudeau! Guy! Alfie! Mario! — Ottawa wanted, needed and deserved this one so much more.
The Senators dominated every facet of the game, as a quality Montreal scoring chance was as hard to come by as Melnyk supporter. The Sens’ patience and execution laid bare why the Habs are the only NHL team without a 20-point skater.
“Everybody was on the same page, everybody really wanted a win,” Karlsson said. “We love this city. We love all our fans. And we want to come up and show up for them.”
Let’s be honest. Sens supporters got slapped in the face Friday night with Eugene Melnyk picking a peculiar occasion to threaten moving his team, their team.
The Ottawa players, however, savoured this weekend, greeting fans, hobnobbing with the alumni, stuffing HotShots in their boots and making the most of it.
Karlsson showed the way with high-fives and bench dancing and pick-you-up smiles. When the microphone was put before him, he thanked the fans and apologized for the sight lines. He acknowledged how cold they felt.
“He’s our marquee player. The city rallies around him, as do we. It’s nice to see him engaged,” Ryan said. “He’s our leader, so it was really nice to see him step up on the big stage, and we knew he would.”
The Sens have now won twice in a row for the first time in over a month. They hope this can be one to build off. They’re certainly not deaf to the noise outside — anyone catch “Headlines“? — but they’re refusing to let it crumple them. They’re fighting for the people who pay to see them play.
“We want to give them something back. It’s important for us to show that we have character. We don’t want to lose as much as they don’t want us to lose,” said Karlsson, finally warming indoors.
“Coming home here, showing everybody that we still care a lot. We want to do well for ourselves. We’ll do everything we can to get ourselves out of the hole we dug ourselves. They’ve been supporting us through all this, and they always have.”
Ryan agreed that Saturday’s performance was his captain’s most dominant since the surgery.
We asked Karlsson if this was the best he’s felt since the return.
“It’s my best outdoor game,” he said, a wink in his answer. “Ever.”