The Ottawa Senators never counted themselves out, even as injury after injury continued to tilt their road to the playoffs at a sharper uphill angle.
"We all kind of strapped on the belt, went to work and found ways to make people believers out of us," goaltender Craig Anderson said after the Senators clinched a playoff spot with Thursday's overtime victory against the Washington Capitals.
The Sens went into that matchup with the Capitals having already lost 214 man games to injury through 45 contests.
That number last season was 224.
In an 82-game season.
Yes, few would have been surprised if the Senators faded down the stretch of this compacted season as the likes of forwards Jason Spezza and Milan Michalek, reigning Norris Trophy winner Erik Karlsson and No. 1 goaltender Craig Anderson continued to miss time.
Ottawa knew that Anderson and Michalek would be back at some point and there was hope (which is mostly gone by now) that Spezza might be able to return by season's end from a back injury that needed surgery.
But the big blow seemed to come on Feb. 13, when Karlsson suffered a 70 percent tear of his Achilles tendon after getting clipped by a skate. Surgery followed and the talented blueliner was expected to miss anywhere from 4-to-6 months of action.
It was a blow that Ottawa's offense, already struggling, couldn't afford given that Karlsson was second on the team last season with 78 points and led the club with six goals through the first 14 games of this campaign.
But 10 weeks later, there was Karlsson back on the ice for the Senators. He had already made a surprise return to practice a week ago and deemed himself ready to play before Thursday's game with the Capitals.
They say hockey players are tough, but what Karlsson did versus the Capitals is ridiculous. Assisting on both goals, including the overtime winner on the power play, and logging eight shots wasn't the amazing part. It was the fact that the 22-year-old, fresh off of missing 31 straight games, logged a game- high 27 minutes, 11 seconds of action.
"I thought he'd play 35 or 40 (minutes)," Anderson, who himself missed 18 games with season with an ankle injury, said afterward with a laugh.
Said head coach Paul MacLean: "Erik showed the difference that he can make and the quality and type of player he is. Obviously our team was a different team with him on the ice and the things that he can do that others can't do. He's a very special player and to his credit he was up and running. He's done a ton of work in his rehab to get to this point."
And that point for the Senators is their second straight playoff berth and 14th in the past 16 seasons. That span has seen only one trip to the Stanley Cup Finals, though, a five-game loss to the Anaheim Ducks in 2007.
That could change in 2013 as the return of Karlsson surly makes the Senators an exciting dark horse to come out of the Eastern Conference, which features the Pittsburgh Penguins or Boston Bruins as the favorites to advance to the Cup Finals.
But the Sens were pretty good without Karlsson and have already gotten the defensive side of things down. Anderson was a Vezina Trophy candidate before getting hurt and Ottawa ranks near the top of the NHL with just 2.09 goals allowed per game.
Now with their playmaking defenseman back at the blue line, the 28th-ranked offense (2.33 goals per game) will only benefit from here on out.
"It was great to see him out there," said captain Daniel Alfredsson. "I think we were kind of cautious what to expect, but we know what he is capable of, just what he opens up offensively for us: creating chances, joining the rush, breaking out of our end. It was great to have him back."
Of course, the X-factor is Karlsson's health. He didn't put a percentage on himself before the game and Alfredsson noticed a bit of hesitation from the star defender versus the Capitals.
Not that he is worried.
"I don't think he joined the rush as much as he would or will in five or six days (when) he gets his legs under him. He played really smart, kept it simple and picked his moments," Alfredsson said.
As for Karlsson himself? He reported no pain during the game or right after when talking to reporters.
"I felt OK," said the former All-Star. "I did battle some issues out there and didn't feel quiet as comfortable as I used to, but overall it was a solid game. I still have to work through some mistakes and clean those up."
Asked if they were mental or health issues, Karlsson said he thought it was a bit of both.
"When you've been away for a long time and guys out there are up to speed, it's a fast game and pucks are flying everywhere and bodies and it's just a little bit to get used to I guess, but I'm going to have to figure that one out."
MacLean was quick to offer a ton of praise after the Sens clinched their playoff spot. He credited the leadership group for helping the team battle through the adversity as well as the various scouting and development staffs that found players skilled enough to fill the injury void.
That includes scoring from the likes of center Kyle Turris, defenseman Patrick Wiercioch and forward Jakob Silfverberg, and excellent goaltending from backups Robin Lehner and Ben Bishop, since traded to the Tampa Bay Lightning for another young talent in winger Cory Conacher.
"It was a long road when we started down it and we just took it day-by-day and game-by-game and that's how we approached it," noted MacLean. "I think that's the reason we had some success with it, but the leadership group was outstanding to get us to this point."
The Senators are now healthy -- minus Spezza -- and should be prepared mentally for anything the playoffs can throw at them. That includes a probable first-round matchup against one of the top three seeds in Pittsburgh, Boston or Washington.
"This is what you fight for all year, to get into the playoffs," Alfredsson said. "It seems like it's getting tougher and tougher in the league every year. We've been through a lot this year, I think we've learned a lot and hopefully there's more to come."