BUFFALO, N.Y. — A decade ago, the IIHF World Junior Championship barely registered as a blip in the United States. Outside Canada and a minute percentage of fans, it wasn’t a major event.
Now, games are televised on NHL Network, including the U.S. opener Monday night and the medal round. And the Washington Capitals’ John Carlson deserves a lot of credit for the explosion in popularity.
Carlson’s gold-medal-winning overtime goal in 2010 that beat Canada is one of the most memorable moments in the tournament’s history, at least in this country, and so far the biggest accomplishment in the defenseman’s career.
“When you were playing on the pond when you [were] a kid, you’re always scoring the winning goal,” said Dale Hunter, who coached Carlson with the London Knights in the Ontario Hockey League and now the Caps. “It’s one of those things that you can add to it and it adds to your makeup.”
Carlson’s moment in the spotlight is well in the rearview mirror now, as he has stepped up to the Hershey Bears (AHL) and Caps since firing one past Martin Jones 4:20 into overtime Jan. 6. And while the 21-year-old insists that goal “doesn’t matter” in his day-to-day thinking now, knowing he scored four in that tournament can help.
“I thought maybe at the time being a call-up player, of course it helps boost your confidence and makes you feel a little bit more comfortable out there when you know you played against great players and you’ve done well against great players,” Carlson said. “A lot of times goals carry a lot of momentum. Just for me this year — not only this year but every year — it seems like when I score a few goals and then I don’t. And then I score a few goals and then I don’t. I just think it’s the way it goes sometimes.”
Carlson’s offense tends to come in bunches. He had seven points in three games earlier this month but just one point in five games going into Monday night at the Buffalo Sabres.
His confidence, though, doesn’t wane.
“After a game where you score, you play well, the next game you’re feeling pretty well about yourself. You’re a little bit more comfortable,” Carlson said. “Maybe you’re thinking that you can score a little bit more just because you have.”
Hunter coached Carlson in the OHL before his golden goal and now with the Caps. The difference is appreciable.
“He’s got older and wiser. He’s a great skater, and he reads the game well,” Hunter said. “He’s just going to get better and better, I think, offensively, too where he’s just going to add to his game because of his agility out there and skating and smarts.”
Friend and defensive partner Karl Alzner often has remarked about the consistency of Carlson’s game, even though struggles are part of any player’s game. But now, a couple of years removed from the peak moment of his career to date, the defenseman has some sage advice for the players in this year’s world junior tournament.
“First off, just have fun. It’s an unbelievable tournament,” Carlson said. “Anytime you can wear your country’s emblem on your jersey, it’s a whole new level of excitement and honor.”