NEWARK — Karl Alzner started to see glimpses of the old John Carlson in practice Thursday. His skating no longer looked labored and his gait appeared natural again. Alzner was suddenly reminded how talented his longtime teammate is.
In his first game back from a lower-body injury, Carlson reminded everyone else. In a scoreless game, his one-timer was the overtime winner for the Capitals in a 1-0 defeat of the New Jersey Devils. With Carlson back, Washington had its full defensive corps, and it showed in the shutout victory.
Braden Holtby saw just 22 shots on goal in winning his 45th game of the season, putting him four wins away from breaking the NHL’s single-season wins record, set by former Devils goaltender Martin Brodeur in 2006-07.
But in just Holtby’s third shutout of the season, the spotlight was in front of him.
“He looked like the John Carlson that we all know,” Coach Barry Trotz said. “He skated well, he jumped up into the play, made good decisions — all those areas of the game, I thought he was real solid. Lo and behold, he gets the game-winner. That just tells you he’s an important guy to us.”
Said Alzner: “I think one of the things that I forgot about his game is the ability to pass the puck. He made some passes today that we’re just almost kind of in awe [of] on the bench. They were like Nicky [Backstrom]-esque. That’s something that really helps a team out, transition game. With the skill that we have, if we can make those plays that he can do, it’s pretty fun to watch. He’s one of the best defensemen in the league, so when he’s in the lineup, we’re better.”
That was a welcome sight. Carlson entered the season as the Capitals’ top defenseman, but a lower-body injury against Montreal on Dec. 26 derailed his season. He returned after missing 12 games, but he still wasn’t completely healthy and never flashed his old form.
He underwent a procedure for the undisclosed injury on Feb. 27 because it continued to affect his play, and he then missed an additional 13 games. That allowed the injury to completely heal, and Friday’s game was the beginning of a 10-game adjustment period before the playoffs start.
Carlson skated with Nate Schmidt as the team’s third pairing, and resumed his responsibilities on the power play and penalty kill. He played 19 minutes and 27 seconds, recorded four shots on goal and blocked three shots.
After he arguably returned too soon from the injury last time, this time felt and looked completely different. Carlson admitted that there were times when he wondered whether he’d ever return to feeling completely healthy, as he never had dealt with injuries at the NHL level before.
“It was a long road with a lot of different obstacles and different set of goals that you put in to try to make it the best you can mentally,” Carlson said. “At least the team was doing good and all of that kind of stuff. I could just get myself as ready as possible to play in the game.”
The scoring chances were tilted in the Capitals’ favor through the first two periods, but New Jersey made up ground in the final frame, out-shooting Washington 11-5. With 2:16 left in the game, Alex Ovechkin drew an interference penalty by Damon Severson, giving the Capitals a golden power-play opportunity.
It was just Washington’s second power play of the game, and on the first man-advantage, the Capitals didn’t register a shot on goal — three attempts were blocked. This one didn’t fare much better, as Washington struggled to assemble its 1-3-1 formation. It ended with the teams scoreless, the first Capitals game this season in which neither team had scored in regulation.
But after Washington players had been critical of themselves earlier this week for the team’s uneven play in the second half of the season, this performance, though low-scoring, was the game they were striving toward.
“We didn’t give them very much,” Trotz said. “That might have been the lowest chance total of the year. . . . We really didn’t give them too many chances. I thought it was a pretty easy night for Holts for the most part.”
The only thing that made it sweeter was the ending.
“It couldn’t have ended any better, with him scoring in his first game back in his home state,” Alzner said of Carlson. “It’s just a perfect story. We were pretty happy for him.”