On Tuesday, Carlson practiced but did not skate with Karl Alzner, his usual partner on the Capitals’ top defensive pairing. That spot was filled by Nate Schmidt, who filled in for Carlson last week. But Carlson was back with Alzner on Wednesday and, as he did Tuesday, playing in his normal spot on the Capitals’ second power-play unit.
In Toronto on Tuesday, Maple Leafs Coach Mike Babcock ruled defenseman Nikita Zaitsev out for Game 1. The 25-year-old Zaitsev took a hit to the head in the Maple Leafs’ regular season finale, and will likely be replaced by Martin Marincin on a pair with former Capitals defenseman Connor Carrick.
That leaves one defense inching toward full strength, and another patching a sizable hole as the Stanley Cup Playoffs begin.
“It’s just a process, I’m part of the decision but I’m not the decision-maker,” Carlson said after Wednesday’s practice. “I’m just doing everything I possibly can to get better, get stronger, and yeah, I feel good.”
Carlson said he felt better on Wednesday than he did on Tuesday, but didn’t expand further. He averaged the most ice time of any Capital during the regular season (22:43) and is on the team’s power play and penalty kill. But the Capitals are confident in their defensive depth heading into the postseason, which was bolstered by the addition of Kevin Shattenkirk at the trade deadline.
Schmidt has now filled in during a Shattenkirk suspension and Carlson’s current injury. He has scored in two of his last six appearances and was regularly paired with Brooks Orpik before Shattenkirk joined the team. The Capitals are hoping Carlson is healthy at the start of their playoff push, but they also feel confident that Schmidt or Taylor Chorney could step in if needed.
“He has all-world skills. He fits into our D corps really well,” Capitals goaltender Braden Holtby said of Carlson. “Obviously he’s been a big staple on our team for a long time and has played really well in the playoffs. We’ll take all the experience we can. It’s a nice luxury that we’re able to give him some more time and make sure he’s ready to go.”