Defenseman John Carlson could not have scripted his return to the Capitals lineup any better if he had written it himself.
Playing in his first game since leaving the lineup on Feb. 24 to undergo a procedure on a lower body injury, Carlson logged 19:27 of ice time (2:06 on the power play, 3:07 on the penalty kill), blocked three shots and fired four shots on goal, the final one hitting the back of the net and giving the Caps a 1-0 victory over the New Jersey Devils 2:17 into overtime.
“I knew they were tired and I almost didn’t shoot it,” Carlson said of the Jason Chimera pass he blasted past rookie goalie Scott Wedgewood. “Chim almost thought I was going to skate in a little faster than I probably did.
“I kind of let up a little bit and the puck was going pretty slow back at me so I figured someone was going to jump in the lane and I would turn away and keep possession and keep them on the ice as long as I could. I just decided to shoot it and I didn’t know it went in at first.”
The Capitals bench erupted after the goal.
“We were fired up,” Caps defenseman Karl Alzner said. “It couldn’t have ended any better. His first game back, in his home state. It’s a perfect story and we were pretty happy for him. He got the helmet tonight. It was a good start to hopefully a good finish.”
Carlson played alongside Nate Schmidt and looked more like the defenseman who led the Caps’ blue line with six goals and 21 assists in his first 34 games of the season.
“He looked like the John Carlson we all know,” Capitals coach Barry Trotz said. “He skated well, jumped up in the play, made good decisions in all areas of the game. I thought he was real solid and lo and behold he gets the game winner. It just tells you he’s a really important guy to us.”
Carlson was injured in that 34th game of the season when he blocked a shot against the Canadiens. He missed the next 12 games and when he returned on Jan. 27 everyone around him saw that his injury had not completely healed. Carlson had no goals and four assists in the 13 games following his return before the team decided he needed to undergo the undisclosed procedure.
“When he came back you could kind of tell there was still something going on,” said Capitals goaltender Braden Holtby, who stopped all 22 shots he faced in Friday night’s win, his 45th of the season. “It’s a good sign for us. It looks like he’s moving better and not favoring the leg at all.”
Carlson, who grew up in Colonia, N.J. and played for the Jersey Rockets as a teenager, acknowledged as much after Friday night’s game.
“I would say different is the best way to describe it,” Carlson said of how he felt in his return. “There’s still a lot to be seen. Now I get the feel back and some of the other things you just take for granted in games that you kind of rely on.
“Every player is different but it’s breaking through the barrier of what it used to feel like and what it feels like now. You try to build on that and get as many reps as makes sense.”
Carlson seemed to suggest after the game that he’ll be back in the lineup Saturday night against the Blues.
“It’s challenging and good,” he said. “You just kind of lay it all out there and see where you’re out afterward.”
Alzner, who has played many of his 500 NHL games alongside Carlson, said watching his former partner Friday night reminded him of how important he is to the Caps’ transition game.
“One of the things I forgot about his game is his ability to pass the puck. He made some passes today where we were almost in awe on the bench, almost Nicky-esque,” Alzner said, referring to Nicklas Backstrom. “He’s one of the best defensemen in the league so when he’s in the lineup we’re better.”
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