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Senators open season without Karlsson against Capitals

OTTAWA -- The Ottawa Senators will be without their best player when they open the season Thursday night at Canadian Tire Centre against the Washington Capitals.

Defenseman Erik Karlsson, who had offseason ankle surgery, has been practicing in a "no contact" jersey for almost two weeks, but Senators coach Guy Boucher said his captain's status remains a "day-to-day thing."

"I know it's getting better every day," Boucher said after Wednesday's practice. "That's all I know. We're getting closer."

With or without Karlsson, the Senators are drawing a formidable opponent off the bat. Also, one that should be hungry.

After winning the Presidents' Trophy for finishing first overall in the regular season, Washington bowed out of the playoffs in the second round for the third spring in a row. Change was inevitable.

Gone from the Capitals' lineup are veterans such as Kevin Shattenkirk, Justin Williams, Karl Alzner and Marcus Johansson.

But there also remains a very solid core in D.C., with Braden Holtby in goal, John Carlson and Matt Niskanen on defense and a forward group led by Nicklas Backstrom, Evgeny Kuznetsov and, of course, Alex Ovechkin.

Ovechkin, the recently turned 32-year-old Capitals captain, will be closely scrutinized for signs of slowing down. After three straight 50-plus goal seasons, he had just 33 in 2016-17.

"It's an important year for him," Capitals GM Brian MacLellan told The Washington Post. "It's kind of like a hump. Where is he going here? Is he the 33-goal scorer, or does he still have a higher level of production. I think he's aware of it."

Nobody believes the Senators, as they are currently assembled, can go any higher than they did last spring, when they made it to double overtime in Game 7 of the Eastern Conference finals before finally bowing to the Pittsburgh Penguins.

Prognosticators on both sides of the border see the Senators as a bubble team that could miss the playoffs altogether this season, despite the fact the only significant player loss is defensive defenseman Marc Methot, who was Karlsson's partner.

"Apart from our own expectations, everybody else out there doesn't seem to think we're a playoff team again," Boucher said. "So, we're going into (Thursday's) game the exact same way we went into every game last year. We want to be the best we can be and control what we can control, and expect the best from ourselves and go on from there."

Having success against the Capitals will be mean flipping a switch. The Senators lost their last three preseason games by a combined score of 22-6.

"What's the motivation?" said center Derick Brassard, who is coming off shoulder surgery and was only cleared to play on Wednesday. "You get beat 8-2, it might be a good reality check for our team before the season. Nobody was happy. But I think we had a really good week of practices. It was fun to get some drills together.

"I think our team is ready for the season. I know we're missing our best player, but I still like our chances. If we play the right way, we have a really good chance to win some games. When Erik is back, it's just going to be a big plus for our team."

Updated October 4, 2017

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