Carlson shines in playoff debut with Caps

ARLINGTON, Va. -- Eight seconds is all it took for Washington Capitals rookie defenseman John Carlson to stomp all over the butterflies that were flying around in his stomach Thursday night.

Carlson leveled Montreal left wing Mike Cammalleri in front of Washington's bench soon after the opening faceoff of his first career playoff game. His team went on to lose in overtime, 3-2, but Carlson was hardly a reason why.

It's fair to say that the 20-year-old was Washington's best defenseman Thursday night.

"I think it helped a lot, just the opportunity to make a hit like that really settled me down," Carlson told of his whack on Cammalleri. "Once you make a good play you get more confidence and get more comfortable. Getting that on the first shift was a big thing. It got the jitters out right away."

Carlson finished his big night with an assist, five shots on goal and that one big hit in nearly 22 minutes of ice time. Sure, he was credited with five giveaways, but that's probably right about normal for a rookie who was playing in just his 23rd NHL game.

"I thought he played really well," Capitals coach Bruce Boudreau said. "He had a couple giveaways in his own zone that were planned plays that he didn't read them. He did what he was supposed to do, but when it wasn't there he needed to do something else. Other than that, I thought he was pretty solid out there."

The youngster is no stranger to big games. He morphed into a USA Hockey hero with his overtime-winning goal in this year's World Junior Championship gold-medal game against Canada in Saskatoon. Carlson finished that game with 2 goals and the tournament with 4 goals and 3 assists in seven games.

Carlson, from Natick, Mass., had the same mindset going into both the gold-medal game and Game 1 of the playoffs -- "just relax, play your game and do whatever you can," he said -- but he felt the difference in energy and intensity Thursday night.

Like every other young player, he felt he to prove himself on the big stage in the NHL playoffs to prove his rising star status is not a fluke. He did.

"I have been up for probably a month and a half or so and … as practices go by and the games go by I just build off each one," he said. "To get my first playoff game out of the way was a big one for me because just not knowing anything about it leaves a little bit to the imagination and that's not always a good thing for a young guy. Getting the jitters out early helped me settle down and know that I can play in these games."

Boudreau started Carlson alongside his defensive partner, Tom Poti, and with the Caps' third line because it was the matchup he wanted against the Canadiens' line of Cammalleri, Tomas Plekanec and Andrei Kostitsyn.

Carlson, though, took the start as his coach offering him a huge vote of confidence.

"That was pretty cool," he said. "Just skating in warm-ups you could feel the intensity of the crowd and the atmosphere in the building was hyped up. I was like, 'OK, this is going to be the big time.' It felt pretty cool and I was glad I played well, but I was upset with the loss."

After the hit on Cammalleri, Carlson quickly got into the flow of his game, too. He's a join-the-rush defenseman and he looked comfortable moving up with the puck as the game went along.

He was credited with an assist on Nicklas Backstrom's go-ahead goal 47 seconds into the third period. His floating one-timer from the right point hit off Montreal defenseman Hal Gill and caromed right to Mike Knuble, who made a deft drop back pass to Backstrom for a rising shot from the inner hash marks.

"As a young guy I'm still worried about me turning the puck over and them going down on an odd man rush," Carlson said, "but you can tell I'm comfortable if I'm jumping in the rush and doing those things that are in my game."

Washington could be seeing a lot of that over the next decade-plus.

Follow Dan Rosen on Twitter at: @drosennhl