After more than a week of waiting to learn their next opponent, the Hershey Bears finally hit the ice last Saturday to prepare to take on the Manchester Monarchs in the American Hockey League's Eastern Conference Finals. It will have been 12 full days off between rounds when rookie defenseman John Carlson and his Bears teammates host Game 1 Wednesday.
"It's been a pretty long layoff," said Carlson. "It's good that we've been able to heal from injuries and what not, but at the same time, you want to stay in it."
If anyone deserved a little time to kick back and regroup, it was Carlson.
One of the most highly-touted young defensemen in hockey, Carlson spent the last month and a half of the regular season with the NHL's Washington Capitals, and not just as a spare part. He logged more than 20 minutes of ice time per game in the Capitals' first-round playoff match-up against Montreal, a series that went the distance.
Washington suffered en emotional 2-1 loss in Game 7 April 28, and the next night Carlson was in Albany, N.Y., helping the Bears complete a four-game sweep of the River Rats in the second round of the Calder Cup Playoffs.
"It was a quick turnaround," said Carlson, a Natick, Mass., native whose family moved to New Jersey when he was around 7 years old. "I didn't think it'd be that quick, but as a hockey player, that's what you have to do. I was happy we got the win in Albany because we got a lot of time off to relax after that."
When Carlson was recalled to Washington in early March, Hershey coach Mark French had a suspicion he might not be seeing the 6-foot-3, 210-pound defenseman again for a while -- if ever.
But after the Capitals unexpectedly were dispatched in the opening round, Washington's loss turned into Hershey's gain.
"Once (Washington was eliminated), your mind turned pretty quickly to, 'Gee, he makes you a pretty good team and helps out a defensive corps that had some adversity through the first two rounds,'" French said.
"I don't think we expected him to be (in Albany) right away," French added. "He showed up in the morning, we asked him if he was good to go, and he said, 'Well, I'm here, so I want to play.' From a coaching standpoint you worry about how he would adjust coming down, but he was excellent."
Excellence is nothing new to the 20-year-old Carlson, whose experiences in just his first 12 months as a professional would challenge the dreams of any aspiring young hockey player.
A first-round draft pick (No. 27) by the Capitals in 2008, Carlson played one year of Canadian junior hockey for London (OHL) and finished tied for second in the league in scoring among defensemen -- along with future AHL All-Rookie Team defense partner P.K. Subban -- with 76 points in 59 games.
After his playoff run with London ended, Carlson joined an already-stacked Hershey squad, jumped right into the lineup as a 19-year-old, and helped the Bears to their AHL-record 10th Calder Cup title last June.
"It was my first little taste of professional hockey, and we had such a good core group of guys -- and we still do -- that really know how to win," Carlson said. "Just being around those guys and keeping your ears open helps."
With that sneak preview as a building block, Carlson took his game to another level as a rookie this year. Selected to represent Hershey at the AHL's mid-season All-Star Classic, Carlson went on to lead all Bears defensemen with 39 points (4 goals, 35 assists) in just 48 games and ranked fourth in the entire league with an impressive plus-37 rating, leading to his selection to the AHL's All-Rookie Team at year's end.
In addition to his seven-game playoff stint with Washington, Carlson appeared in 22 regular-season contests for the Capitals, and contributing 6 points, including his first NHL goal, March 25 at Carolina.
And on top of all that, Carlson turned in his most dramatic moment of the season when he scored the gold medal-clinching goal in overtime for the United States in the World Junior Championships on Jan. 5, ousting the host Canadians.
"It's incredible, the things I've had the opportunity to do," Carlson said. "Just looking back on what I've already been through in the last year and a half or so, it's been great. As a kid, you always grow up saying you want to do these things, and here it is, it's right in front of you."
An opening act like Carlson's might leave many 20-year-olds on Cloud Nine and just waiting for the next moment of glory to arrive. To be sure, Carlson is pleased with his early success, but he won't get ahead of himself. The success has just helped him develop more confidence, and that confidence has helped him mature beyond his years.
"Hopefully I win a Stanley Cup some day. The World Juniors was unbelievable, as was the Calder Cup last year, but you always dream about the Stanley Cup."
-- John Carlson
In the AHL -- and then for Washington in Game 7 against Montreal -- Carlson is frequently paired with fellow first-round draft pick Karl Alzner, another blossoming young rearguard who had 21 points and a plus-34 rating in 56 games with Hershey. When that young duo is on the ice together, the opposition simply can't focus its entire defensive effort on Hershey's trio of forwards.
"I'm a little more of an offensive defenseman, but I like to compete on both ends of the ice," Carlson said. "I think playing with Karl Alzner really helped me out this year. Playing with such an impeccable player like him helped me see what was going on, helped make the game easier, and we've created a bond on and off the ice."
"He's such an imposing figure, he has that ability to lug the puck, and he has a great mind for the offensive side of the game," French said of Carlson. "He's got the confidence to jump into the play, and he possesses a great shot."
As the Bears prepare to battle Manchester in the conference finals and ultimately strive to make it back-to-back Calder Cups -- something not accomplished in the AHL since the Springfield Indians repeated in 1991 -- they certainly won't have to worry about young John Carlson getting the jitters.
Technically he's still a rookie, but he just might be the most seasoned rookie you'll ever find.
"I've been lucky to be on such successful teams, and it's good to always win," Carlson said. "You never want to lose. As a young guy, when you always win, you learn to win and you learn that losing is that much worse. I think that's a big part of how I play, and I think that the people around me have really instilled that in me."
After everything he's already been through, what's out there that can top it? With a bit of a chuckle, Carlson was ready for that one.
"Hopefully I win a Stanley Cup some day," he said. "The World Juniors was unbelievable, as was the Calder Cup last year, but you always dream about the Stanley Cup."
As far as French is concerned, Hershey fans better enjoy the chance to see Carlson chasing another Calder Cup this spring while they still can.
"He's one of those guys where I don't think it takes a very educated hockey man to know he's a very special player," he said. "He possesses great God-given skill, but at the same time, he's got the mental makeup to be an NHL player next year and an impact player next year."