Tracee Hamilton - Sports Columnist

Washington Capitals defenseman John Carlson is a star in the making

The Washington Post's Cindy Boren and Mike Wise preview pivotal Game 4 of the NHL playoff series between the Capitals and the Canadiens.
By Tracee Hamilton
Washington Post Staff Writer
Wednesday, April 21, 2010


It's good to be John Carlson. Monday night the Caps defenseman had his best game of the playoffs against the storied Habs in Montreal. Of course, the 5-1 Game 3 victory was also just his third playoff game in the NHL. But after his Game 2 heroics -- scoring the tying goal near the end of regulation before the Caps won in overtime -- and his almost flawless debut in Game 1, he's a grizzled veteran now, right?

Carlson laughed at that notion.

"I feel better and better and that's what the whole goal is," Carlson said Tuesday after practice. "I didn't score last night but I think I played probably my best game. I played the most minutes in three periods, not overtime, so I felt good and every game I'm getting better and better. That really helps as a young guy."

It seems that the past 12 months, for Carlson, have been all about getting better, and making everyone around him better as well.

In January, he scored the game-winning goal in overtime in the junior world championships to beat the dreaded Canadians, 6-5, and earn the nickname "Captain America." He made his NHL debut all the way back in November, when he was just a pup. Last spring, he joined the Hershey Bears of the American Hockey League for the playoffs and helped them win the Calder Cup.

That's an impressive résumé for anyone. For a 20-year-old, it's a little staggering. Caps Coach Bruce Boudreau is not a gusher, but he can't say enough good things about John Carlson.

"There's just something about him," Boudreau said after Game 2. "Glory follows him. Some guys get that. I've said it before. They come up in the ninth inning with the bases loaded, and they're the ones that do the damage. I think John Carlson's career is going to be like that."

Quick, someone alert the Nats! Although they'd have a hard time prying Carlson away from the Capitals organization, which took him 27th overall in the 2008 entry draft. At 6 feet 3, 208 pounds, he was expected to make the NHL roster someday, but that he rose from low juniors so quickly is unusual. Typically, a defenseman needs three to four seasons in the minors before he's ready for the NHL. Carlson has cemented an NHL roster spot with 202 games at the junior level and just 16 in the AHL playoffs. "Sometimes," he said, "the situations I've been in, I've been so fortunate to be a part of some great teams and get some great opportunities. Sometimes you're just, I don't know how much luck you can get in a row. I've got to keep going with it; when luck's on your side, that's always a good thing."

In his first playoff game, Carlson came out with fire on defense and also had an assist. Afterward, I asked Boudreau to rate his performance.

"I thought he was great," Boudreau said. "I don't know how else to put it. He had a couple giveaways off faceoffs but other than that, he played with the poise of a 30-year-old. He's going to be a real star in this league."

Carlson gained confidence from that performance, and it showed in Game 2. At one point in the third period, positioned near the goal, he batted a puck out of the air like King Kong going after one of those pesky airplanes. Then came the game-tying goal with less than two minutes to play. Afterward, teammate Tom Poti called him the best defenseman on the ice in the postseason. Tuesday, I asked Poti if he'd changed his opinion after three games.

"No, not at all," he said. "He's playing great, he's playing like a veteran out there."

He may be playing like a veteran, but miraculously, Carlson played in only 22 regular season games this season, meaning he'll be eligible for the rookie of the year award next year. Will he be wearing a different jersey number by that time? After all, high numbers like 74 are usually for acquisitions and call-ups.

"I don't mind it, actually, because I was No. 11 and it's retired in Washington [Mike Gartner]," Carlson said. "So they gave me that number, 74, and 7 plus 4 is 11. My coach during juniors, they did that to him, too. He got No. 32 out of training camp and he stuck with it throughout his career."

That would be Dale Hunter, who was Carlson's coach at London of the Ontario Hockey League. Not a bad role model; Hunter's 32 is retired as well. Carlson's got a long way to go to match Hunter, but one place he's surely not headed is back to the minors. Not after what he's shown this season and in the playoffs. Right, John?

"I hope not," he said. "You never know. But I hope not."

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