When stay-at-home defenseman Karl Alzner finds himself up on the rush, he looks and finds friend and defensive partner John Carlson right there with him.
It’s a product of Washington Capitals coach Dale Hunter’s system that he likes his defensemen to jump up, but it’s also a product of Carlson feeling it with his game.
Carlson struggled early in the season to put up points, but the 21-year-old has heated up lately and is back to his old self on the offensive end.
“He’s getting that offensive flair back,” Alzner said. “He’s getting some good looks, and he’s making good on a lot of those.”
Going into Tuesday night’s game against the Philadelphia Flyers, Carlson put up seven points (one goal and six assists) in the Caps’ previous three. He had eight points in six games since Hunter — his old coach from the London Knights of the Ontario Hockey League — took over for Bruce Boudreau.
Carlson doesn’t necessarily see a connection between Hunter’s arrival and his improvement this season.
“It is familiar for me, but I thought I’ve been playing well all season,” Carlson said. “It’s definitely a comfort factor to have him in here over someone that I would have to get used to a little more than him. It’s been a good transition, I think.”
Carlson’s plus-minus has been consistent, though advanced statistics such as Corsi — a way to determine shots for and against when a player is on the ice — indicated that he was hurting on the defensive end. Missed assignments were a problem for a lot of defensemen, at the time, but Hunter and assistant Jim Johnson’s man-to-man defense has helped.
Paired with Alzner, Carlson has been tasked with being a shutdown defenseman — something which earned his coach’s praise.
“Him and Alzner have a tough job with defending against the top lines, and still he’s played offensively, too,” Hunter said. “So got to give credit to them two guys for closing down the best players on each team and putting up some numbers. So it’s a credit to Johnny.”
But Carlson is counted on to contribute scoring, something he attributes to luck but that teammates know is a combination of that and talent showing through.
“He might’ve struggled a little bit at the start, but I think he’s playing with a lot of confidence right now,” defenseman Dennis Wideman said. “He’s working hard; he’s getting up in the play. He’s there; he’s in the right spots. Usually when you’re in the right spots and working hard, good things happen.”
Good things have been happening for Carlson lately — possibly because he has been shooting the puck frequently. Goals aren’t coming fast and furious but points are as rebounds and smart passes have led to assists.
“Sometimes points, they come and go. Sometimes you feel like you should have some when you don’t and vice versa,” Carlson said. “They come in bunches, and I’m fortunate to have one.”
Carlson shook off any possibility that he might be mired in a sophomore slump with a nice stretch of production, but that’s not the end-all for the impending restricted free agent.
“I think that everyone learns as they go in this league,” he said. “I hope that I get better in every aspect of my game — not just one.”