Karlsson back on the attack

Perhaps it’s merely a coincidence, but ever since a testy Erik Karlsson bit back at reporters’ criticisms early last week by proclaiming “I’m not some (effing) god or something,” he has raised his offensive game several notches.

Karlsson back on the attack
Erik Karlsson. (Chris Mikula / Ottawa Citizen)

Perhaps it’s merely a coincidence, but ever since a testy Erik Karlsson bit back at reporters’ criticisms early last week by proclaiming “I’m not some (effing) god or something,” he has raised his offensive game several notches.

The Ottawa Senators defenceman has four goals and five assists in his past five games and sits atop the NHL’s scoring lead among defencemen, two points ahead of Montreal’s P.K. Subban before Thursday’s meeting between the teams.

Karlsson’s mood, like that of his teammates, is also decidedly more chipper, as the Senators feel they took considerable pressure off their own shoulders thanks to a 4-1 win over the Columbus Blue Jackets Tuesday.

While a small group chose to take part in an optional practice at the Bell Sensplex Wednesday, a larger group came into the Canadian Tire Centre dressing room dripping with sweat following a makeshift game of pickup basketball on the hard court set up for the Ottawa SkyHawks game Wednesday.

“It calms you down,” Karlsson said of Tuesday’s victory, which ended a five-game losing streak. “You smile a little bit.”

Indeed, Karlsson was a tad playful when asked about the inevitable comparisons to Subban, who has arguably been the NHL’s most complete defenceman through the first month of the schedule.

“He’s a great player,” said Karlsson. “He has shown that the past two years. He is going to have a lot of success in this league if he keeps playing like he is (now). And you know, obviously it’s fun to see somebody else doing well, as well. I don’t hold a grudge (against) anyone that is playing better than me.”

Was it all about honesty? A little gamesmanship? A way of motivating himself to follow up from Tuesday’s two-goal and plus-three effort? Most likely, a little bit of all three.

Karlsson was also colourful and candid in describing how goaltender Robin Lehner was in position to back up the team when “we screwed up a little bit” in Columbus and in elaborating on whether he’s approaching the skating level he displayed before Achilles surgery last February.

“I think it’s definitely better than it was at the start of the season, but I still think I need to work hard at it and give it time,” he said. “I can’t say I’m displeased (with) where it is now.”

Karlsson has six goals and 11 assists for the season, ninth in the overall NHL scoring race before Wednesday’s games and better than a point-per-game pace.

“We don’t have any ceiling for him … so he can just keep going,” said Senators coach Paul MacLean. “The way that he played (Tuesday), he really controlled a lot of the pace of the game and tempo of the game and if he can continue to do that, we’re looking forward to watching that.”

If Karlsson is an engine for the Senators’ offensive attack, it also means they’re willing to live with the odd defensive lapse. Early in the season, Karlsson appeared to be in limbo, unsure of when to commit to a play for fear of making defensive mistakes.

“I just think his instincts to play are better, he’s back playing the game,” said MacLean, suggesting his star defenceman was in survivalist mode in the opening weeks of the season. “I think now he’s got the instincts back of when to do things and when not to do things. He has more control over his game.”

Bobby Ryan, for one, has Karlsson’s back in claiming the expectations are over the top.

“It’s hard to believe they can be any higher than how he has played,” said Ryan. “He’s in and around the puck every game. He leads the rush and he’s the first guy back. I don’t know what (more) could possibly be expected of him, but he has been our best player, I think.

“He has made a couple of mistakes, but he’s still a young kid. If he’s 23, he’s going to make mistakes. But it’s pretty ridiculous to watch him take four or five strides and leave guys in the dust like that.”

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