Capitals center Nicklas Backstrom saw the note saying John Carlson had become the first defenseman in franchise history with seven points in his first three playoff games and then shared that with Carlson — and then he continued to remind him of it again and again, a comedic bit the Capitals have revisited with the blue-liner throughout the season.
“The guys joke about it,” Carlson said. “There’s no letting down with these guys.”
“That’s just because he used to be on top of everybody, so I just give it to him back,” Backstrom said. “He needs that [ribbing], too.”
Perhaps success this time of year just comes naturally for Carlson. Capitals Coach Barry Trotz isn’t sure there’s such a thing as “a playoff player,” but he’ll concede there are players who earn a reputation for what they do in the postseason. Carlson’s career highlight reel might start with the overtime goal he scored as a 19-year-old to win Team USA a gold medal at the world junior championship in 2010. His play in the Calder Cup playoffs when the Hershey Bears, Washington’s American Hockey League affiliate, won back-to-back championships left such an impression on his teammates that they still reference it eight years later.
Now as the Capitals have stormed back in their first-round series against the Columbus Blue Jackets, the teams tied at two games apiece, Carlson is once again showing a knack for playing well when the stakes are highest.
“He always raises his game in the playoffs,” goaltender Braden Holtby said. “I mean, he always has since I was with him in Hershey. He doesn’t shy away from anything. He doesn’t get intimidated by anything. Pressure doesn’t affect him. That’s one of his biggest assets, and I think that’s why we lean on him so heavy in the playoffs.”
Carlson’s future in Washington beyond this playoff run is uncertain. He’s a pending unrestricted free agent, set to become one of the highest-paid defensemen in NHL history after he tallied 15 goals and 53 assists this season, the league’s highest-scoring blue-liner. A reputation as a strong postseason performer will only add value to a next contract that’s expected to be worth north of $7 million a season. But even when the Capitals found themselves down two games to none in this series, Carlson insists he never let himself consider the future or that these could be some of his final games in a Washington uniform. He just focused on extending this season. He has figured in more than half of the goals the Capitals have scored this postseason as the team’s top producer so far.
“I would like to think that I play my best hockey now and pride myself on, when it’s needed most, doing whatever it takes,” Carlson said.
Capitals General Manager Brian MacLellan said the team will wait until the offseason to tackle Carlson’s contract. Washington is the only club that can offer him the maximum eight-year term, but even with the salary cap expected to rise to $80 million next season, the Capitals could run into constraints. Right wing Tom Wilson and goaltender Philipp Grubauer are notable pending restricted free agents also due raises.
“It’s going to be a trade-off on, do we want to create some space, or what salary level we’re willing to go to and he’s willing to accept,” MacLellan said recently.
“When we sat down and chatted, he basically said, ‘Look, we really would like to keep John,’ ” Rick Curran, Carlson’s agent, said of his conversation with MacLellan. “I assured him that John’s preference would be to stay in Washington. We both recognize that neither one of us were really in a position to say much more about it because Washington doesn’t have any cap space at the moment.”
Curran said striking a deal isn’t necessarily trickier the closer Carlson gets to July 1, when he can officially test the market. Just 10 defensemen in the league have a cap hit worth more than $7 million, and such a figure would make him at least Washington’s third-highest-paid player. The 28-year-old’s current deal pays him roughly $4 million a season.
With three of the first four games going to overtime, Carlson has averaged 28:19 per game. When he and partner Michal Kempny have been on the ice together, the Capitals have taken roughly 57 percent of the shot attempts and 81 percent of the high-danger scoring chances. Carlson has quarterbacked a power play that’s scored a whopping seven goals in this series while also playing on the penalty kill and getting challenging assignments at even strength.
“He’s been a guy who’s stepped his play up,” Trotz said. “Not that he hasn’t all year, but in the playoffs you have to maintain an even higher level. And I think he’s done that.”
With Washington clinging to a one-goal lead and on the power play on Thursday night, Columbus forward Cam Atkinson swatted the puck to clear it safely out of the Blue Jackets’ zone. Carlson got the blade of his stick on it instead, carefully keeping the puck in front of the blue line so the Capitals wouldn’t lose possession. He nonchalantly looked up and passed to Alex Ovechkin on the left side, beginning a sequence that led to forward T.J. Oshie scoring what was ultimately the game-winning goal.
“I think it’s an attitude and it’s probably something you’re born with,” center Jay Beagle said. “He’s got confidence in his game, confidence in himself. But it’s a quiet confidence that you know he knows the type of player he is, I guess. I think it’s just a matter of he lives for the big moments. He lives for the big games.”
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