When defenseman John Carlson tried returning from a lower body injury that had kept him out of 12 games from Dec. 28 through Jan. 19 everyone around him noticed he was not the same player.
“You could tell when he came back his first step was not a John Carlson first step,” Capitals defenseman Karl Alzner said of Carlson’s 13-game attempt to will himself to health. “There’s no point of rushing it at this point. You wait until he feels good and he looked really, really good out there today.
“You can tell the extra few weeks has done him good because when he comes back he’s a game changer for us.”
Capitals coach Barry Trotz said he will wait until Friday to determine whether Carlson returns to the lineup after missing 13 games with the same lower body injury that sidelined him for 12 games earlier this season.
Asked if Carlson looks game ready, Trotz said, “Yeah, he does.”
“He fills a big hole for us. He plays a lot of offensive minutes, he’s a big body, plays defensive minutes. Getting him back and playing the last nine or 10 games, I think he’ll be ready for the playoffs.”
The most pressing question for assistant coach Todd Reirden is finding the right defensive pairings. On Thursday, Carlson played alongside Nate Schmidt, which was an effective pair during Brooks Orpik’s absence. That left Orpik on a third defense pairing with Dmitry Orlov.
“It’s a challenge,” said Reirden, a former NHL defenseman. “That’s one of the things you enjoy when you’re done playing and you become a coach. The gamesmanship and strategy that goes into having the right people on the ice and the preferred matchups you want to have.”
Carlson skated on the Caps’ second power-play unit on Thursday, with Matt Niskanen taking turns on the first unit. Reirden pointed out that different defensive pairs become necessary after power plays and penalty kills, which is why he used a variety of combinations on Thursday at practice.
“You can never predict what lineups are going to be,” Orpik said when asked about partnering with Orlov. “I think it’s actually been a good thing for us to have some injuries and getting guys accustomed to playing with different guys.
“If all of a sudden in the playoffs you get an injury, guys might panic or be a little uncomfortable and I think we’ll be comfortable this time around.”
The bottom line is having a healthy Carlson down the stretch.
“We’re just happy to have John back and utilize the strengths he has,” said Reirden, who worked extensively with Carlson on Wednesday at Kettler. “He’s an elite player and just to have him back healthy and happy to be on the ice I think will give our team a little bit of a surge here the last 10 games.”
The Caps are expected to monitor Carlson’s ice time in his first few games and evaluate how he feels after each of the next two games. The Capitals follow Friday night’s game in Newark with a home game against the St. Louis Blues on Saturday.
“The most important thing is to get him as close to perfect as we can for Game 1 of the playoffs,” Reirden said.
Capitals center Nicklas Backstrom agreed.
“He’s a big part of our team,” Backstrom said. “He plays a lot of minutes and he’s a terrific hockey player. I think he’s not going to come back until he’s 100 percent because you never make the same mistake twice. With our position (in the standings), there’s no need to rush.”
MORE CAPITALS: Carlson returns to practice Thursday, Oshie sits out