The Capitals have clinched first place in the Eastern Conference with more than two weeks remaining in the regular season, but locking up the conference’s top seed didn’t come in the dominating fashion Washington has been used to this season.
For much of the past month, the Capitals, who are running away with the Presidents’ Trophy, have looked more like a team backing into the post-season than one entering the playoffs with a head of steam. Washington’s play has been up and down, the team has been vocally disappointed in their play and there has been blowout losses at the hands of the San Jose Sharks and Pittsburgh Penguins over the past two weeks. Help appears to be on the way, though.
When Washington heads to New Jersey Friday evening, defenseman John Carlson, 26, could be set to return from a 13-game absence and that would give the Capitals an immediate and much-needed boost as the post-season approaches.
This is the second time this season returned from a similar injury earlier in the season, but this time he says he’s 100 percent and ready to come back to playing the same way he had before. Carlson told the Associated Press he was limited in his playing style before undergoing an undisclosed procedure to help repair his lower-body ailment.
"I don't think I'll have to play any different than I did at the beginning of the year," Carlson told the . "That's a big thing is I had to kind of change what I was doing out there because I was limited in certain areas. I don't think there'll be any of that this time around. It's exciting.”
Carlson has been a key fixture of the Washington blueline when healthy this season. Second in ice time on the Capitals blueline only to Matt Niskanen, Carlson has every bit the offensive punch and defensive acumen to be an impact player and difference maker for Washington down the stretch.
"I think Carly has the ability to be a game-breaker-type player," Capitals defenseman Karl Alznertold the Associated Press. "Just having him in the lineup I think allows us to have a little but more freedom for all the guys to utilize their minutes more effectively. You don't have to pace yourself at all because Carly's in there playing between 20 and 26 minutes of hard minutes.”
And that’s exactly the thing. Having Carlson around allows coach Barry Trotz to build a more solid defense using his players to the best of their abilities.
Offensively, Carlson’s gifts are clear. In 47 games, he has six goals and 31 points, making him one of the top-15 most productive blueliners in terms of points per game. He can quarterback Washington’s power play, make the all important first pass out of the defensive zone and cause problems on the rush for opposing defenses. But Carlson’s biggest contribution may be that he’s a reliable defenseman for Trotz to put out on the ice when the Capitals aren’t on the offensive side of the puck.
Of all defensemen in Washington, Carlson boasts the third-highest percentage of defensive zone starts behind the pairing of Niskanen and Alzner, and Trotz uses Carlson as a second-unit penalty killer. So while Carlson’s offensive contributions help, that’s not and hasn’t been a concern for the Capitals all season long. Defensively, though, one has to wonder how long the Capitals will be able to keep it up without Carlson on their backend. As we saw with the Chicago Blackhawks in 2014-15, winning a Stanley Cup is possible with a solid core of blueliners, but there’s a sizeable hole in Washington’s with Carlson out of the picture.
There are still some areas of concern for the Capitals as the post-season approaches — Braden Holtby’s play over the past two months and the team’s possession numbers chief among them — but Carlson’s return could be just the shot in the arm Washington has needed in the doldrums of the regular season.
(All advanced stats via War-On-Ice)