Ottawa return bittersweet for Karlsson as Sharks’ struggles continue

Erik Karlsson returned to Ottawa for the first time as a member of the San Jose Sharks, the Sharks lost to the Senators 6-2.

The game of hockey has been known to humble its brightest stars – even on days they are supposed to own.

On his return to Ottawa as a member of the San Jose Sharks, Erik Karlsson stirred passions on both benches, and in the stands of a nearly-packed Canadian Tire Centre, but left the building on the losing end of a 6-2 scolding by his former Senators team.

“It was a great experience, I had a lot of fun out there, even though this was not a great game and I’m not happy by any means,” Karlsson said. “But I’m excited to move on to Montreal and hopefully sort this mess out.”

Don’t look now but the feared Sharks (12-10-5) have dropped four straight while the rebuilding Senators improved to 12-12-3 with their third straight win. At home, Ottawa is an impressive 9-4-2.

You can’t make this stuff up, Karlsson getting shut down despite pumping 13 shots toward his ex-goalie Craig Anderson, nine of them registering as shots on goal. Meanwhile, the lightly regarded Mikkel Boedker, one of three ex-Sharks in Ottawa’s lineup, contributed a goal and three assists. Chris Tierney – with an assist – and Dylan DeMelo are the other former Sharks.

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The only feature of a dull, scoreless first period was the video tribute to Karlsson, met by a standing ovation by the crowd of 17,531, (although not to the length of salute to Daniel Alfredsson when he returned with the Detroit Red Wings). Watching the montage intently from the Sharks bench was Karlsson, helmet off. When it was over, he jumped over the boards, did a light twirl and waved a thank you in return.

“It was a lot of fun,” Karlsson said. “I think I did a good job staying focused on the game. At the same time, I got to experience the good things that went on.”

Karlsson thanked the Senators staff for the tribute. As to his former teammates, he says he will see them in January, in San Jose.

Looking on from the stands was Alfredsson himself, a rare appearance in the arena for the man whose No. 11 hangs from the rafters.

Alfredsson, who told a reporter he hasn’t been to a game in two years, encouraged Karlsson to try to enjoy this homecoming, something he didn’t when it was his turn. Too stressful, Alfie said.

On the ice, Karlsson did seem to enjoy himself, fully engaged, throwing shots on net from all over, shaking his head at a couple of close ones. During a second period power play, initially a 5-on-3, it was Karlsson who threaded the puck to Brent Burns, who fed Pavelski on the left side, before No. 8 wheeled it across to Joe Thornton for the tap-in. Too bad there are no third assists in hockey.

A few minutes later, Karlsson delivered a defensive gem, in a flat-out foot race with Ottawa’s fleet winger, Ryan Dzingel, Karlsson swung his stick around Dzingel to reach the puck, which flew up off the crossbar and stayed out.

That preserved a 1-1 tie midway through the game.

Two subsequent goals 49 seconds apart put the Sharks in a 3-1 hole from which they could not recover. Lumbering 6-foot-6 defenceman Ben Harpur’s career first and Boedker’s third of the season turned the game on its head in the latter part of the second period. Apparently the Sharks underestimated these two in their pre-scout.

A scripted story would have had Karlsson scoring the game winner. As these things often go, reality meant the more San Jose pressed, the further they fell behind.

Karlsson wanted this game badly. Guess what? The Senators did, too.

A Mark Stone power play goal in the third buried San Jose.

“We’re struggling right now,” Karlsson said. “We’re going to go through periods like this throughout the year. We have to sort a lot of things out. We’re a better team than we’ve shown in the past four or five games here.

“We know that. And at the end of the day it’s up to us in the locker room to figure that out and find a way to get back to being the team we know we can be.”

Anderson made several brilliant saves, including one off Thornton in the third period that ignited a round of “Andy! Andy!!” chants.

Further pain for EK65: During the game, all Karlsson Ottawa gear at the Senators store was posted as 50 per cent off. Memories.

WATCHED HIM GROW

They say you grow up fast in hockey.

Karlsson is a prime example. We first saw him a little more than ten years ago, on draft night in this very same arena (then called Scotiabank Place).

Here was this fresh-faced Swedish kid who could have passed for 14, announced by Ottawa captain Alfredsson as Ottawa’s 15th-overall pick. With his short cropped hair and a 10K runner’s build, at 5-foot-10, he might have weighed 150 pounds.

This was the franchise future?

“He’s (Sergei) Zubov, without the cigarettes,” enthused one European scout about Karlsson.

One of the Senators Swedish scouts, Anders Forsberg, said of Karlsson: “he won’t fail, because he won’t allow himself to fail.”

Other draft picks, in various rounds, dwarfed this kid, yet he had a moxie that none of the bigger prospects could manage.

“Hi, I’m Erik Karlsson, first-round pick,” he said, beaming, to all his fellow draft selections. Here was a player born with confidence.

As he says, he came to Ottawa as a child, grew up here, fans patient as he found his game in the first season, 2009-10. We watched him grow to be the most talented Senators defenceman of all-time. He played hurt, returning early from Achilles surgery and then from a wrecked ankle.

In 2016-17, Ottawa saw the best of Karlsson, arguably the best hockey player on the planet that season, leading an overachieving Senators team to the Eastern Conference final.

Last season, with ankle surgery messing with his summer training, Karlsson was not himself. He was missing that first-step wizardry, and strayed far from head coach Guy Boucher’s tight system.

Ironically, the flashiest player ever to wear the uniform is freshly gone, and now the Senators turn the kids loose to play entertaining hockey. Luckily, Karlsson provided enough of his own over the years.

At 28, he’s grown, physically, at six-foot and 190 pounds. That short, cropped hair is now Thor’s mane. In the pre-game warmup, sans bucket, Karlsson bent low and then whipped his head back, his hair following in a hirsute torrent.

Life ensues in a decade with one organization. Karlsson began as a tenant in Alfredsson’s house, often babysitting the young sons of Alfie and wife Bibi. Karlsson married young, the bond didn’t last and with his second wife, Melinda, suffered a horrible loss last March when their son was stillborn. It became part of an alleged online harassment that was equally shocking.

Ottawa watched him grow into a man, a superstar player, and leave in a difficult parting when Karlsson and the Senators were never on the same page about renewing his contract.

Saturday, he came home and was part of a thrilling game Senators fans will long remember. With their joy came the sobering thought of how quickly ten years can pass, in all of our lives.

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