John Carlson knows only one way to play hockey, so when he skated across the spot Thursday where he suffered a fractured skull and severed temporal artery three months ago on the Capital One Arena ice, he didn’t look back. The Capitals defenseman accelerated after a loose puck on an early shift behind Chicago Blackhawks defenseman Taylor Raddysh, who swung his stick in the air and nailed Carlson in the face. Carlson shook his head. Everyone held their breath.
It was a reminder of just how fragile Carlson’s return was — but in a 6-1 win over the listless Blackhawks, the 33-year-old didn’t flinch. He delivered checks and battled for pucks. He scored a goal while quarterbacking the power play and dished out an assist. He directed a blue line at full strength for the first time all season and provided an emotional lift for the Capitals just two nights after they suffered a meltdown in a 7-6 loss to the Columbus Blue Jackets.
“I haven’t been nervous for a game like that in a long time,” said Carlson, who received a standing ovation in the first period as the Capitals built a commanding lead. Conor Sheary and Anthony Mantha scored 18 seconds apart in the first 20 minutes followed by a Nic Dowd snipe early in the second period to create separation. By the time Carlson assisted on Nicklas Backstrom’s goal later in the second, the Capitals ensured they would not collapse as they did Tuesday night against the NHL’s worst team.
“Carly is an elite player,” Dowd said. “That’s his first game in three months, and he was, in my opinion, one of the best players on the ice.”
Washington, which finished the night four points behind the Pittsburgh Penguins for the final wild-card spot, will need to piece together a winning streak over its final nine games and get considerable help to remain in the playoff conversation. But at the very least, this win was an indication the Capitals’ health is trending in the right direction for a final push. It was also a preview of the top six defensemen who probably will play together next season — Carlson along with Martin Fehervary as the top pair, Rasmus Sandin and Nick Jensen the second pairing and Alexander Alexeyev and Trevor van Riemsdyk forming the third.
“That’s kind of the first glance at our D-core,” Washington Coach Peter Laviolette said. “We just haven’t had it.”
The Capitals’ downturn began around the time Carlson suffered his injuries after being hit in the head by a slap shot Dec. 23 against the Winnipeg Jets — the team had a losing record in the 36 games he missed and were able to string together a two-game winning streak only twice in that span. For weeks, as he gradually rehabilitated alone while the team struggled, Carlson kept Thursday’s return, which was exactly three months after the injury, at the forefront of his mind.
He is still adjusting mentally to the intricacies of the game. On his first shift, he turned his head briefly away after a puck was launched toward him by a poke check. “Probably not the most ideal of starts you’d want,” he said, but after he was smacked in the face by Raddysh, he settled in.
He nearly scored on a breakaway in the first period. He hounded Blackhawks forwards along the boards. He helped set up Backstrom’s goal and spearheaded the Capitals’ power play early in the third period. This time it was his turn to unleash a slap shot. He wound up and crushed the puck. It was deflected but still got through Chicago goaltender Anton Khudobin to give the Capitals a 5-0 lead. Carlson cracked a smile as his teammates skated over to hug him.
“Welcome back, baby,” captain Alex Ovechkin said to him in the dressing room afterward as the Capitals players cheered. Outside, the team’s owner, Ted Leonsis, and general manager, Brian MacLellan, waited to greet him. They were not far from the training room where the team’s medical staff had rushed to stop the bleeding from his injury in December. Carlson doesn’t like to look back in there. He was only looking forward Thursday night.
“Obviously I wasn’t expecting to play a perfect game. Nobody ever does,” he said. “But it was nice to be back under fire.”
Here’s what else to know about the Capitals’ win:
Ovechkin scored a third-period goal to make it 6-1. It was goal No. 821 for Ovechkin, who has 41 on the season and four in his past three games.
Kuemper, van Riemsdyk return
Goaltender Darcy Kuemper was back in net after missing two games because of an upper body injury. Van Riemsdyk was also back in the lineup after missing Tuesday’s game as his wife gave birth to the couple’s first child. Van Riemsdyk, who won a Stanley Cup with the Blackhawks in 2015, was featured in the third defensive pairing alongside Alexander Alexeyev.
Gain a Carlson, lose a Carlsson
With Carlson back, defenseman Gabriel Carlsson was sent back to the team’s American Hockey League affiliate in Hershey, Pa., on Thursday after playing six games with the Capitals. Goaltender Zach Fucale was also reassigned to Hershey in the wake of Kuemper’s return