It’s been since early November that the Washington Capitals have been completely healthy, and the defense was hit hardest. Brooks Orpik missed 40 games with a lower-body injury. John Carlson was the next to go down with a lower-body injury, and though he returned to the lineup before the all-star break, he wasn’t completely healthy and never returned to his old form.

With the Capitals comfortably ahead in the standings, Carlson underwent a procedure for his injury after it continued to linger, requiring him to miss about a month. Coach Barry Trotz was vague on whether he’d play, but Carlson is likely to make his second return to the lineup on Friday night against the New Jersey Devils. With 10 games left in the season, Washington will see what a truly healthy defense looks like.

“You could tell when he came back, his first step wasn’t John Carlson’s first step,” defenseman Karl Alzner said. “There’s no point in rushing at this point. You wait until he feels good, and he looked really, really good out there today. I think you can tell the extra few weeks has done him good. When he comes back, he’s a game-changer for us.”

Orpik and Carlson entered the season as the team’s top defensive pair, and Carlson was the Capitals’ top defenseman, logging the most minutes with top power play and penalty kill time. He was having one of his most productive seasons before he got hurt against the Montreal Canadiens on Dec. 26, with six goals and 21 assists.

After missing 12 games, he returned in the last game before the all-star break, but he and Trotz admitted that in hindsight, he might have played too soon. When the injury wasn’t healing as expected, he and the team opted for the procedure on Feb. 27. He’s missed 13 games.

At Thursday’s practice, Carlson was skating with Nate Schmidt and he practiced at the point of the second power play. Carlson and Schmidt became a pair when Orpik got hurt, and when Orpik returned to the lineup, he started skating with Dmitry Orlov. Washington could opt to reunite Carlson and Orpik and pair Schmidt and Orlov together. The Capitals also have two extra defensemen in Mike Weber and Taylor Chorney.

“We have lots of really good options on the back end, however we want to mix and match the lines,” Alzner said. “Carly and Orpy together is just a dynamite d-pair that can come into play if necessary against a team that’s deep up front. We can split them up and really just solidify the whole thing. It’s nice to have him in the lineup.”

The Capitals aren’t having a morning skate on Friday, but this is what the lines are expected to look like against the Devils:

Forwards
Alex Ovechkin-Nicklas Backstrom-Justin Williams
Andre Burakovsky-Evgeny Kuznetsov-Marcus Johansson
Jason Chimera-Jay Beagle-Tom Wilson
Daniel Winnik-Mike Richards-Stanislav Galiev

Defensemen
Karl Alzner-Matt Niskanen
Brooks Orpik-Dmitry Orlov
Nate Schmidt-John Carlson

Goaltenders
Braden Holtby (starter)
Philipp Grubauer

Scratches
T.J. Oshie (illness)
Michael Latta
Mike Weber
Taylor Chorney