For the better part of this lockout-shortened National Hockey League season, Ottawa Senators fans have wondered what their team might be capable of with a full, healthy lineup.
Now, the puzzle pieces are quickly falling back into place, providing a tantalizing preview as the playoffs roll into view.
Milan Michalek: Two goals in two games since returning from a knee injury.
Craig Anderson: Two straight wins — including one shutout — after a shaky return from a severe ankle sprain.
Jared Cowen: Two fights and the bone-jarring, open ice hit that prompted them Tuesday night in his first game back from hip surgery.
So there was no shortage of ebullience from those fans Wednesday afternoon when general manager Bryan Murray mused that Norris Trophy-winning defenceman Erik Karlsson could be back at practice as early as next week.
Murray wasn’t shy about raising hopes the diminutive D-man, who has been out of the lineup since his Achilles tendon was severed in a game against the Pittsburgh Penguins Feb. 13, could be back before the puck drops on the postseason later this month either.
“Actually, we had a meeting (Tuesday) and talked a little bit,” Murray said after watching his team prepare for Thursday’s game against the Washington Capitals. “And I suggested maybe next week, if he feels that he’s close enough to go out and spend 15 minutes at the early part of practice with the team, that would be a good thing for him and obviously a little motivation for the group.”
Murray said it was difficult to set a timeline for Karlsson’s return before the defenceman takes that crucial step.
He also stressed Karlsson will be the one who makes the final decision after doctors clear him to play.
“Obviously, it’s like Jared … we don’t tell anybody ‘you should come back and play.’ What we tell them is, ‘if you feel comfortable to come back on the ice with the group and have a skate and practice with them, that’s great, and then you tell us when you’re ready to play,’” Murray explained.
“So I think Erik, for his own good, if he gets out with the team for a couple practices, will have a better sense of where he is at as well.”
Karlsson, who had six goals and four assists in 14 games to start the season, is way ahead of schedule as it stands.
Severe Achilles tendon injuries often require six months of rehab, and it’s only been two since that fateful collision with Penguins agitator Matt Cooke in Pittsburgh.
For that reason, both Karlsson and the team have to be cautious about pushing things along too quickly.
Cowen’s outing against the Carolina Hurricanes showed it’s possible to smash recovery expectations and have an instant impact, however.
The expectation was that he wouldn’t see game action until next fall.
Jeff Skinner felt it after Cowen crushed him with a clean check at centre ice early in Tuesday’s game (Skinner, who has a history of concussion problems, was expected to return to Raleigh Wednesday for further examination).
Chad LaRose and Kevin Westgarth felt it when they dropped the gloves with the 6-foot-5, 230-pound defenceman in retribution.
Cowen said he didn’t second-guess his health before the game and felt good the day after.
“My face is a little sore,” laughed Cowen, who had a couple cuts from the post-hit scraps, “but other than that, the body’s fine, the hip’s fine … I’ve had harder practices where I’ve been on the ice longer, so it’s no big deal.”
Although Cowen’s hit on Skinner sent a message to opposing forwards buzzing through the neutral zone, it was the aftermath that may have helped the Senators the most.
“There was one point where I had, like, five guys asking me to fight after I already had two fights,” he said. “Kind of funny how that goes, but whatever. Obviously it distracted them from their game.”
As happy as fans are to see progress in the sick bay, the man who benefits most is the one charged with putting the puzzle together.
Senators coach Paul MacLean said Cowen met expectations Tuesday, and Anderson will be back in net against the Capitals.
It’s clear the coach appreciates the jolt Michalek brings to the forward group most of all.
“Having (Michalek) back, I think, has been big for our team, not only because of the fact that he scored in both games, which is obviously important, but his abilities killing penalties as well — we can put him on the ice at any time against anybody and he’s a very responsible player,” MacLean said.
With those players in the lineup and Karlsson on the right track, the only mystery left is the one shrouding Jason Spezza and his sore back.
He had another session in the gym Wednesday, but there’s still no timeframe for his return.
But the way the injury pendulum has swung back for the Ottawa Senators this week, it wouldn’t be the least bit surprising to see him suddenly on the mend.