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On the evening of April 22, 2010, the Ottawa Senators were attempting to stave off elimination in Pittsburgh.

Against the backdrop of a decaying Mellon Arena — in its final season as home of the Pittsburgh Penguins — a dynamic teenager would announce his arrival on the NHL scene with a brilliant performance for the ages.

In that contest, Erik Karlsson logged 40:38 of ice time, the most of any Ottawa player with their season on the line. It was a remarkable achievement considering Karlsson was riding the bus with the club’s AHL affiliate in Binghamton in November of that season.

Karlsson notched a pair of assists to help the Senators avoid elimination with a 4-3 triple-overtime victory against the Penguins. The raw and scrawny teenager saw more ice time that night than established superstars such as Sidney Crosby, Evgeni Malkin, Daniel Alfredsson and Jason Spezza.

And since the NHL started keeping track of ice time in 1998-99, Karlsson’s virtuoso performance is the only instance of a teenager eclipsing the 40-minute mark in a playoff game. By the end of the six-game series, Karlsson would lead all Ottawa defensemen in ice time and his six points in six games would serve as a preview for the offensive prowess he would routinely display over the next decade.

The playoff series in Pittsburgh catapulted Karlsson on a trajectory that would see him capture a Norris Trophy two years later, while he was in the final year of his entry-level contract in 2011-12.

When the lockout-shortened 2012-13 campaign started in January of 2013, Karlsson — now armed with a fresh seven-year, $45.5 million contract — exploded out of the gate. He picked up three points in an opening-night win over the Winnipeg Jets. By the time the season was a month old, Karlsson had scored six goals in 13 games, the most of any defenseman in the league.

As Karlsson arrived in Pittsburgh on the night of February 13, 2013, there was legitimate chatter that Ottawa’s young defenseman had entered the same stratosphere of superstardom as Crosby.

And once again, Karlsson’s career arc would take a sharp turn on the ice in Pittsburgh.

This time, however, it came with catastrophic consequences.

With time dwindling in the second period at Consol Energy Center that night, Karlsson went into the corner in his own zone to retrieve a loose puck near the end of a Senators power play. As he collected the puck, the skate blade of Penguins forward Matt Cooke sliced the back of Karlsson’s leg.

Karlsson screamed in horror, a moment that was eerily captured by Associated Press photographer Gene J. Puskar.

Erik Karlsson after the skate blade of Penguins forward Matt Cooke sliced the back of his leg on February 13, 2013. (Gene J. Puskar / Associated Press)

Unable to put any weight on his left leg, Karlsson angrily threw his stick as he was helped off the ice by Chris Phillips and head athletic therapist Gerry Townend.

The following day, Senators general manager Bryan Murray — fully clad in a black outfit that perfectly matched the mood of the franchise — announced that Karlsson would be lost for the remainder of the season with a 70 percent cut of his Achilles tendon.

The incident heightened the contentious rivalry between Ottawa and Pittsburgh, with Senators management incensed by the lack of punishment doled out by the league for Cooke’s actions.

“I’m outraged by the fact we lost Erik Karlsson,” Murray told reporters on February 14, 2013. “The league suggested it was a hockey play gone bad and I suggested that Matt Cooke has somewhat of a history and maybe that should be considered as well, but I don’t believe that’s the approach they took. They took it as the individual act.”

Senators owner Eugene Melnyk took things a step further when he infamously suggested he was working with forensic doctors to build a case against Cooke.

“I’m going to prove whether it was intentional or not,” Melnyk told Sportsnet 590 The Fan radio station in Toronto.

When Karlsson first spoke with reporters 10 days after the incident, he arrived at the media conference with a considerable limp and wearing a walking boot. While he was ruled out for the remainder of that 2012-13 season, Karlsson was assured by doctors he could regain his Norris Trophy form in the future.

“They said I should have no problems going forth,” Karlsson said on February 22, 2013. “When I’ll be back I’ll be 100 percent and hopefully in even better shape than I was before.”

Against all odds and in a remarkable instance of numerology, Karlsson returned to the ice to practice with his teammates exactly 65 days after the injury occurred. Karlsson’s return to the lineup a few days later on April 25, 2013, defied all logic, as he adhered to an improbable timeline to recover from an Achilles injury.

Naturally, in his first game back Karlsson led all players with 27:11 of ice time and chipped in with a pair of assists — including a primary one on Sergei Gonchar’s overtime winner — to help Ottawa clinch a playoff spot with a win in Washington.

But that spring, Karlsson was merely a shell of himself. While he logged his usual ice time, Karlsson did not have that same dynamic stride to his skating. He essentially played on one leg, an admirable feat that should have permanently erased any doubts about Karlsson’s dedication and work ethic.

In the years that followed the Achilles injury, Karlsson never quite regained that explosive element that made him a one-man breakout in the early portion of his career. But he modified his game, relied on his natural instincts and remained one of the most productive defensemen in the game.

He managed to capture another Norris Trophy in 2014-15, during Ottawa’s impressive and memorable “Hamburglar Run” to the playoffs. Karlsson added a pair of runner-up Norris finishes in the following two seasons, narrowly losing out to Drew Doughty and Brent Burns, respectively.

But it was his performance in the spring of 2017 that once again vaulted Karlsson into the conversation as one of the best players on the planet. Karlsson appeared alongside Crosby and Connor McDavid on the cover of The Hockey News with a headline that simply read, “The Big 3.”

Karlsson elevated himself to that status after carrying the Senators to the brink of a Stanley Cup berth and providing numerous signature moments along the way.

His 125-foot saucer pass to Mike Hoffman created one of the most memorable goals in recent playoff history.

Karlsson’s pass to Derick Brassard provided younger hockey viewers with a glimpse into the excitement and color of a vintage Bob Cole goal call.

Remarkably, Karlsson was once again doing this with significant damage to his left foot. This time, he was playing with two hairline fractures in his foot, the result of blocking a shot in a game in Philadelphia at the end of the regular season.

Even more stunning was the fact that Karlsson voluntarily divulged this information to reporters himself, breaching the time-honored tradition of concealing ailments and injuries during the Stanley Cup playoffs.

“I’m not that much for secrets,” Karlsson told reporters.

Midway through that playoff run, Senators general manager Pierre Dorion was so impressed by Karlsson’s performance he invoked a heavenly analogy.

“They always say God rested on the seventh day, I think on the eighth day he created Erik Karlsson,” Dorion said on April 24, 2017.

After the Senators beat the Rangers to advance to the conference final, journalist Michael Farber voiced a memorable video essay about Karlsson’s rise to deity status in Ottawa.

“Now halfway to Ottawa’s first modern-day Stanley Cup, the pews at the First Church of 65 are packed,” said Farber. “We are all congregants.”

But Karlsson’s ascension would come to a halt against the Penguins, with another crushing moment occurring on the ice in Pittsburgh. This time, it was the dagger of a Chris Kunitz double-overtime goal in Game 7 to eliminate the Senators and push the Penguins to another Stanley Cup title. In the winner-take-all game, Karlsson logged 39:33 of ice time — six minutes more than any other skater for either team that evening.

Erik Karlsson congratulates Sidney Crosby after Game 7 of the Eastern Conference final on May 25, 2017. (Jamie Sabau / Getty Images)

Karlsson’s performance in the spring of 2017 was so memorable, he even earned a third-place vote for the Conn Smythe trophy as playoff MVP — a staggering achievement for a player whose team didn’t even reach the Stanley Cup Final. If not for the Penguins derailing him, Karlsson’s 2017 performance would have gone down in history as one of the greatest individual playoff performances produced by a skater.

But Karlsson paid a heavy physical toll for his exploits in the spring of 2017. He required surgery in June of that year, with his recovery taking several months.

“They took half of my ankle bone out and the part that is still there should be as normal as possible,” Karlsson revealed to reporters on September 27, 2017. “It feels like I have a leather piece in my one ankle and you can’t really move it. It’s going to take some getting used to, but again, I think I can manage this pretty well right now.”

Once again, it would take Karlsson a couple of seasons to adjust to his new normal. A trade to San Jose in the fall of 2018 provided him with a fresh start with a new organization. But his trip to the conference final with San Jose in 2019 was far less memorable than his journey to the same point with Ottawa two seasons earlier.

And largely, his time in San Jose was flat and uneventful — until his renaissance season in 2022-23.

Karlsson showed those same flashes of offensive brilliance he routinely displayed for years in Ottawa. He eclipsed the 100-point plateau and captured his third Norris Trophy with the Sharks last season.

A third Norris Trophy put Karlsson in the same class as Paul Coffey, Denis Potvin and Chris Chelios — three first-ballot Hall of Fame defensemen. But what separates Karlsson from those three is a missing Stanley Cup title.

Of the nine defensemen who have won at least three Norris Trophies, Karlsson is the only one without a Stanley Cup championship on his resume. By joining the Penguins at the age of 33, Karlsson is hoping he can follow the Raymond Bourque blueprint of capturing that elusive title in the latter stages of his career.

In a way it’s fitting that he has ended up with the Penguins, considering so many of the questions around his career have been inextricably linked to Pittsburgh.

What would Karlsson’s career have looked if his Achilles wasn’t sliced by Matt Cooke? How differently would we think of his legacy if he won a Stanley Cup and a Conn Smythe trophy with Ottawa if they weren’t bounced by the Penguins in 2017?

Now Karlsson will write another chapter of his career that is directly connected to the Penguins.

Only this time, he’ll actually be wearing a Penguins jersey.

(Top photo: Joe Sargent / NHLI via Getty Images)



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