SAN JOSE – It's perfectly understandable that Erik Karlsson likely wanted to put his first game against the Senators in the rearview mirror. All the emotion and the "the time is nigh" shenanigans no doubt turned the noise surrounding the December 1 match in Ottawa up to 11.
"Those kinds of things can weigh on your mind, even when they aren't at the front of your mind," teammate Evander Kane said on January 8. "I think it was a good thing for him to put behind him -- and he's playing some great hockey."
Kane isn't kidding. It was after that loss to the Sens and a subsequent team meeting that things began to click – for the entire team, but especially for Karlsson.
Many may look at Karlsson's recent body of work and his should-be incredible points streak if it weren't for a two-game suspension. Really, he's been progressively playing a more dominant game since the beginning of December.
Now, the Sharks gear up to host the Senators as a much more dominant product than they were when the teams last met, and Karlsson's hot streak is helping to lead the charge.
"He's been a big piece to our success lately," Joe Pavelski said after Karlsson was a key player in the Sharks' recent 7-2 victory over the Edmonton Oilers. "He's been great. He's really established his game in our structure."
Karlsson has played in 17 contests since that highly-publicized return to Ottawa. Through the first 27 games this season, he registered 15 points (two goals, 13 assists). Through these last 17, he has logged 26 points (one goal, 25 assists), becoming just the fifth defenseman in NHL history to record at least one assist in 14 consecutive appearances as of San Jose's win over Edmonton.
Through the first 27 games of the season, he registered a minus-11. Through the next 17 games, he's at a plus-17 – second on the team only to his partner on the blueline, Brenden Dillon.
"He's as good in our end as he is in the offensive zone," Sharks assistant coach Steve Spott said of Karlsson's two-way game. "He's just a world-class player."
One of the first indicators Karlsson had completely cemented himself as part of the Sharks' all-around attack was when he was suspended for two games at the end of December for a hit on LA Kings' forward Austin Wagner.
Sure, one player does not a team make. But it was clear among his return how much firepower he provides to the offense and how much speed he brings to the defense. Plus, the detailed plays he makes in the Sharks' own end to set up scoring chances has given the entire forward assault a boost.
"Everybody feels pretty comfortable playing with him because he makes those plays and he makes that outlet pass and he's got that speed to come out of our end with it," Pavelski said after Karlsson tallied three assists against the Oilers.
Kane agreed: "You see the little plays that he makes, the plays with the puck – especially in the neutral zone," he said. "It's fun to play with."
Not surprisingly, Karlsson himself is much more focused on how the team is playing and what he can do to contribute, than his own personal stats.
"As long as we win games and everybody's contributing – whatever it is that you do out there," he told the media after San Jose's win over the LA Kings on Monday. "I think that's been the mindset in here over the entire group. It doesn't really matter who does it as long as someone does it and everybody does it together."
San Jose as a collective unit has been doing just that over their current five-game winning streak. Since the start of the new year, the Sharks have strung together five wins in a row – and taken over second place in the Pacific Division with a big 3-2 victory over the Golden Knights on Thursday.
With the Senators making their one and only visit of the season to the South Bay this Saturday, it's safe to say the Sharks are a different team than the one that played in Ottawa last month. Erik Karlsson, with his record-setting play, is clearly part of that winning formula.
"The way he's playing, it's helping us win," Brenden Dillon said earlier in the week. "It's amazing in this locker room, when you look around, some of the achievements that guys have. For him, we're just really happy for him."