WASHINGTON — If John Carlson was feeling nervous, it didn’t show on the stat sheet.
The Capitals’ defenseman made his anticipated return to game action Thursday night against the Chicago Blackhawks, three months to the day since he suffered a skull fracture and severed temporal artery on a slap shot to the head Dec. 23. Carlson scored a goal and recorded an assist in 20:01 minutes of ice time to lead Washington to a 6-1 win on their home ice.
“The crowd was real nice,” Carlson said of the standing ovation from fans shortly before puck drop. “That's obviously is a big boost for anybody no matter what you're going through, but certainly coming back is special to get that extra bump and yeah, just trying to refocus. I haven't been nervous for a game like that in a long time, so it was nice to work through that.”
Carlson’s injury forced him out of the lineup for 36 games, a stretch that saw the Capitals fall out of a Wild Card spot and into desperation mode with 10 games to go. The typically durable defenseman’s absence was felt in nearly every facet of the game, though particularly on the power play where he’s been among the league’s most effective defensemen of the last decade.
He resumed his post at the point position and tallied two points with the man advantage. Carlson earned the secondary assist on Nicklas Backstrom’s rebound goal in the second period before scoring one of his own on a shot from the blue line to open the third.
“We miss him,” goaltender Darcy Kuemper said. “In my position definitely missed him out there. We’ve been watching all the hard work he’s been putting in to get back. To see someone go through something so scary and then make a comeback like that, and then have that performance was pretty special.”
Carlson had been practicing with the team for the last couple weeks, but midseason practices can only simulate game action so much especially for a player who only ditched the non-contact jersey a few days ago. Head coach Peter Laviolette felt Carlson was in good shape regardless.
“I don’t think he looked tired,” Laviolette said. “I think he’s worked extremely hard to get to this point. Him and strength coaches did a great job of putting him in a position where he could be successful and you could just tell he was ready. I mean, the last two or three weeks in practice he was arguably our best practice player. We just couldn’t play him until we made sure that everything was good and boxes were checked and healthy.”
Laviolette showed plenty of confidence in Carlson’s ability to step right in by inserting right into the Capitals’ top defenseman pairing and their first power play unit. His ice time ranked second on the team just 10 seconds behind Nick Jensen for the lead.
For Carlson, the two points weren’t enough. He still felt like he could’ve played a cleaner game, even as the team cruised to a dominant victory and he earned First Star of the Game honors.
“Probably better than I thought but still not very good,” Carlson said of how he felt about his performance. “Think there's a lot of plays there that even the simplest of plays sometimes are the ones that kind of sneak up on you and then also they kind of make you feel like crap more because you know how simple or easy they are. Obviously, I wasn't expecting to play a perfect game, no one ever does, but it was nice to back under fire.”