ARLINGTON, Va. (AP) John Carlson didn't feel right when he returned to the Washington Capitals' lineup on Jan. 27 after a 12-game absence. A lower-body injury was still nagging him, yet the team's top defenseman wanted to play.
When Carlson was ineffective, he and the Capitals opted for a procedure to fix the problem. After being out almost two months, Carlson said he's ''pretty darn close'' to being ready to play again.
Carlson could return as early as Friday when NHL-leading Washington visits the New Jersey Devils. This time, there was an abundance of caution and a willingness to make sure Carlson is fully healthy before he steps back onto the ice for game action.
''You don't want to rush him back,'' goaltender Braden Holtby said. ''You could tell there was still something wrong the last time he came back. Hopefully he's 100 percent healthy when he gets back and he can play his game because he's a top defenseman in this league when he's going.''
The Capitals have cruised along in Carlson's absence, clinching the Metropolitan Division and the top seed in the Eastern Conference and moving to the verge of capturing up the Presidents' Trophy, which comes with home-ice advantage throughout the playoffs.
Getting Carlson back into form is one of the final pieces to the puzzle for the Capitals as they prepare for the postseason. Matt Niskanen, Karl Alzner, Brooks Orpik and the rest of the defensemen have been good, but Carlson makes the entire group better.
''I think Carly has the ability to be a game-breaker-type player,'' Alzner said. ''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.''
Carlson tried to play hard minutes in 13 games from Jan. 27 through Feb. 24. Something wasn't totally right that time, but the 26-year-old is confident in his skating now and figures things will be better after the procedure and extra rest.
''I don't think I'll have to play any different than I did at the beginning of the year,'' Carlson said last week. ''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.''
It's exciting for the Capitals to think about what they can do with Carlson healthy. The top two pairings of Carlson, Oprik, Alzner and Niskanen are solid, and coach Barry Trotz can rotate Dmitry Orlov, newly-acquired Mike Weber, Taylor Chorney and Nate Schmidt as the Nos. 5 and 6 defensemen.
With Carlson missing time - and before that, Orpik - those defensemen have gotten some extra ice time but also been rotated in and out of the lineup.
''I think they've handled it pretty well,'' Trotz said of the rotation. ''They understand the big picture, which is really important. To me that says everything. They trust our decisions in what we're doing, they work hard and say, `Whenever you tap me, we're ready to go.'''
Carlson, who has six goals and 25 assists this season, wants that tap as soon as possible. While off the ice, he has tried to watch games to feel acclimated to the team despite his lengthy absence, but there's no substitute for being back in games.
''There were some trying times where it seems like you're never going to skate again, and then as soon as you get on the ice you get that excitement back,'' Carlson said. ''All of a sudden you have the energy that goes along with it. ... It's exciting to feel good on the ice again and get ready for the rest of the year.''
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