Karlsson’s return adds spice to Sharks-Senators matchup

OTTAWA — The most anticipated game of the season at Canadian Tire Centre arrives Saturday afternoon when the Ottawa Senators host the San Jose Sharks.

It will mark the first return of former Senators captain Erik Karlsson, a two-time Norris Trophy winner and the most talented player in franchise history. He was traded to the Sharks in September, almost 10 months before he’s eligible to become an unrestricted free agent. The Senators couldn’t risk allowing him to walk and get nothing in return.

“I feel fairly calm, a little anxious, and obviously it feels a little different,” Karlsson, the Senators’ first-round draft choice in 2008, said after the Sharks practiced at the University of Ottawa on Friday. “I’m going to try to enjoy it. I’ve had nothing but great memories here and I’m looking forward to creating more. Saturday afternoon is going to be another one of those great memories.”

Despite the controversial divorce between the team and its superstar defenseman, Senators players expect Karlsson will get the loudest cheers of the afternoon.

“Ultimately, he’s a friend of ours and one of the best players to every play here,” Ottawa’s Mark Stone said. “The things he did in my time here were nothing short of spectacular. You remember the good times we had and the playoff run that he carried us on. Those are the things he should get remembered for.”

Karlsson hype aside, the Senators (11-12-3) will be trying to match a season-high three-game winning streak. Owners of the worst defensive numbers in the league, they’ll be coming off a 3-0 win over the New York Rangers that not only marked Craig Anderson’s first shutout since December but also tied a season low in shots allowed with 27.

“Arguably, it was one of our best games, if not our best all year, top to bottom,” said center Matt Duchene, who had 21 points in 15 November games. “(Anderson) has seen more rubber than the Michelin Man this year. He deserved this one.”

Thus far, at least, the Sharks (12-9-5) are not living up to the high expectations placed on them after the Karlsson trade. Three games into a five-stop road trip, they are 0-2-1 and coming off a 5-3 loss to the Toronto Maple Leafs that came with some stark realisms. Namely, that they are not yet at the same level as the best teams in the league.

“In my personal opinion, I don’t think we’re close,” center Logan Couture told the San Jose Mercury News. “We show spurts and signs that we’re capable of it, but we haven’t put it together against a top quality team. We’ve got to figure it out soon.”

Coach Pete DeBoer can use the 2015-16 season as an example of how things can come together quickly. That season, the Sharks were .500 as late as January, and they went on to reach the Stanley Cup final.

“I’m a believer that it takes time,” DeBoer told the Mercury News. “I’m a believer that it doesn’t take 26 games.”

The Sharks are expected to be without winger Timo Meier, who is dealing with an upper-body injury. Senators rookie defenseman Max Lajoie is doubtful with an undisclosed injury.