For a few fleeting moments Wednesday, as the Washington Capitals held practice, John Carlson hinted at the player he was before he was drilled in the side of the head by a 90-mph slap shot during a game in late December. He zipped around the ice, going stride for stride with his offensive counterparts. He rushed into the corners during drills, working to dig out pucks. He cracked jokes, laughing alongside teammates who wore their customary red and white sweaters. Carlson’s was navy blue.
That signaled that Carlson was off-limits to be hit — and that his return to the lineup is still “off in the distance,” according to Capitals Coach Peter Laviolette. But the 33-year-old’s first skate with the team since he was hit with the shot was a milestone for him and the Capitals, who hope to eventually bring their top defensive player back to a blue line that has been decimated by injury. It also provided a morale boost for a team that has won just three of its past 11 games and is running out of time to make up ground as the Stanley Cup playoffs near.
“It would provide more of a lift if he was in the lineup [Thursday] night because of the amount of minutes he plays and how important he is to the team,” said Laviolette, whose team hosts the New Jersey Devils on Thursday. “It’s good for him to start working on timing and getting up to game speed.”
While the Capitals have not specified the nature of Carlson’s head injury, he is expected to have another doctor’s appointment this week to determine the next steps in his rehabilitation. The team has him on a “time frame” for a potential return later this month, Capitals General Manager Brian MacLellan said last week, and whether Washington is still in the Eastern Conference playoff hunt at that point isn’t expected to impact the decision.
For now, the Capitals are still facing heavy attrition at the back end of their lineup: Nick Jensen is still dealing with an upper-body injury and is expected to miss his third consecutive game Thursday night, and Martin Fehervary is still not at full strength and also could miss his third straight game with a lower-body injury. Both players skated Wednesday; Jensen wore a blue noncontact jersey like Carlson, while Fehervary was upgraded to a white contact uniform.
Their absences have forced Washington to rely on a cast of young and raw blue liners who aren’t fully indoctrinated with their system late in the season — including newly acquired defenseman Rasmus Sandin, who has been featured in the top pair in his first two games with the Capitals, and Vincent Iorio and Gabriel Carlsson, who were called up from the team’s American League Hockey affiliate in Hershey, Pa., last week. The team sent defenseman Dylan McIlrath back down to Hershey on Wednesday; Washington has had 33 different skaters, including 13 defensemen.
File this under things you love to see: pic.twitter.com/Hz4giLhByp— Washington Capitals (@Capitals) March 8, 2023
Carlson’s injury occurred Dec. 23, in a game against the Winnipeg Jets, when a slap shot struck him on the right side of the head. Carlson bled profusely onto the ice before skating off, a scene that stuck with players as they forged on with their season.
“It was terrifying,” said defenseman Trevor van Riemsdyk. “When you see a puck go that high, you don’t know if it’s his eye, his mouth. I just remember the blood. There was a lot of it, and it was really dark. It seemed very serious right away, and everyone was extremely concerned. Obviously, he has a long path back, and he’s worked really hard to get to where he is now.”
Carlson’s recovery has slowly ramped up in recent weeks, though he has been forced to work on a different schedule than the rest of the team. When players endure long-term injuries, they often rehabilitate early in the morning or later in the afternoon, Laviolette said, and before practices last month, Carlson was on the ice working with skating coach Wendy Marco.
“It’s more just good to see the players,” Laviolette said. “They’re part of the team. They’re part of the family.”
These past few weeks have been unlike any others during van Riemsdyk’s time in Washington. After the Capitals traded five veterans, including defensemen Dmitry Orlov and Erik Gustafsson, van Riemsdyk was pursued by other teams at the deadline but ultimately stayed in Washington after MacLellan decided none of the offers made sense. In the meantime, van Riemsdyk had to step in and help teach the system to a trio of newcomers; when Jensen and Fehervary went down in last week’s overtime win over the Anaheim Ducks, the team was down to four defensemen late in the game.
The next day, Iorio was called up to make his NHL debut, while Carlsson was also promoted to make his first appearance with the Capitals. Sandin was assigned to play in the top-pairing alongside van Riemsdyk and quarterback the power play in his first game with the team, and 23-year-old Alexander Alexeyev received elevated ice time after not appearing in the lineup since January.
With all of that movement, seeing Carlson back on the ice Wednesday offered some sense of normalcy for van Riemsdyk and the Capitals. He brought his usual tenacity, competitiveness and humor, and van Riemsdyk could tell it might be difficult for him not to go full-bore. Just to have him back around the team was enough.
“He means so much to this team when he’s on the ice playing games. But just his presence in the locker room — he brings a great spirit,” van Riemsdyk said. “When he’s out there, you can tell the difference.”