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Another Rung on the Ladder

by Mike Vogel / Washington Capitals
Every NHL player remembers his first regular season game in the league, but the sands of time have a way of fogging away the memory of veteran players’ first NHL exhibition tilts. Those preseason contests obviously carry far less weight and importance than the games on the regular season slate, but for kids who are on the verge of playing in his first NHL exhibition game, those “meaningless” games carry a lot of meaning.

A handful of Caps players experienced the ritual of playing in their first exhibition games this fall. Among them were two players – defenseman John Carlson and center Jay Beagle – whose paths to that first exhibition game were about as different as can be.

Carlson is an 18-year-old American defenseman who was born in Massachusetts and raised in New Jersey. He spent last season skating for the Indiana Ice of the USHL, and is now playing junior hockey with Dale Hunter’s London Knights of the Ontario Hockey League. A highly touted player during his draft year of 2008, Carlson was a first-round choice (27th) overall, and the Caps made a trade to acquire the draft choice used to select him,

Beagle is a 22-year-old Canadian forward from Calgary who played in a Junior A, Tier II league before he went off to play hockey and go to school at the University of Alaska-Anchorage. Beagle left school after two years, and signed as a free agent with the ECHL’s Idaho Steelheads late in the 2006-07 season. Beagle was born in the same city (Calgary) as Caps defenseman Mike Green just four days after the Washington blueliner, but while Green was a first-rounder in 2004, Beagle went unnoticed in the same draft; no NHL team wagered a selection on him in what was then a nine-round, 291-player affair.

Carlson and Beagle were both impressive at the Caps’ rookie camp this year, and both earned the honor of traveling to Carolina on Sept. 24 for Washington’s first preseason game that night against the Carolina Hurricanes.

We had a conversation with both players both before and after that game.

Carlson was asked about his first NHL training camp.

“It was great,” he exuded. “Not too many kids my age can say they played against or played with one of their childhood heroes. I grew up loving Sergei Fedorov and watching him all the time, and wearing his number. It was kind of cool to be on the power play with him and even just to be in the same room with him. He’s a guy you can learn everything from, if you sit there and watch and listen to him.
John Carlson

“It’s great playing with the pros. It gives you a sense of where you need to be. It’s a good feeling when stuff like that happens. It makes you feel like you’ve progressed in your hockey career.”

Carlson attended his first summer development camp in July, just weeks after the Caps drafted him in the first round. He fared well in his first training camp and stuck around long enough to appear in two exhibition games.

“I didn’t really know what to expect.,” said Carlson. “I just decided to come here and try my hardest. I didn’t even know if I’d be around for main camp. So I’m really excited for tonight. It’s my first game and it’s great.

Carlson admitted that he didn’t get a lot of sleep the night before.

“I don’t even know what to think really,” he said. “I’ve been thinking about it for so long, It’s a dream. As a little kid in my kindergarten class, I said I wanted to be an NHL player. Some people wanted to be baseball players. And now it’s finally here. I don’t even know how to explain the feeling. It’s unbelievable.”

Beagle parlayed a 2007 summer camp invite into a Hershey contract for 2007-08. After he scored 19 goals (in just 64 games) as an AHL rookie last season, he was inked to an NHL pact. Everything he has done in camp this fall leads you to believe he will eventually play in the NHL.

Beagle was asked about the rookie camp and the Duchesne Cup games, and how those portions of camp helped prepare him for his first NHL preseason game.

“They were great,” he responded. “You see what the next level is like. It’s fun to be a part of it. I was smiling when I came off after games because playing with those guys and having a guy like [Alex] Ovechkin on your team, it’s just fun to play with those guys.”

Beagle slept better than Carlson did, but was anxious to get everything going on the day of that first exhibition tilt.

“I slept pretty good,” Beagle said. “But I was waking up a little antsy for that alarm to go off and for the day to get going. I slept good, but definitely was a little antsy, though.

“I’m just trying to go through my pregame rituals like I would for any game and once I get out on the ice, just go to work.”

For the game in Raleigh against the Hurricanes, Beagle was slotted in the middle of a line with Oskar Osala and Andrew Gordon, a pair of players with whom he had played before. All three would be making their NHL preseason debut.

“I’m familiar with them so I should be comfortable,” Beagle noted. “I’m not getting thrown in with guys where I’m not familiar with their style of play. Having those guys on my wings will help out. Hopefully I can help them out with a lot of talk and help them out on the wall and with a lot of communication to make our jobs easier.

“I just need to remind myself to play my style of game and not to get away from what I do best. The rest will fall into play if I work hard.”

Washington defeated the Canes that night, 4-1. Carlson skated 17:17, picked up a power play assist, had three shots on goal, four hits and an even plus/minus rating.

Beagle played 16:11 (including 3:13 while the Caps were shorthanded. He had a shot on goal and was 6-for-11 (55%) in the face-off circle.

“It was juts like I thought, “ said a beaming Carlson afterwards. “I just wanted to go out there and be safe with every play at first. And as the game went on I got a little more comfortable and felt like I could play a little bit more of my game and make some good passes and make some good plays. The guys really helped me out all over the place, the older guys, and the coaches helped me on the bench with little pointers here and there. I just tried to do my best.”

The Caps struggled in the first period, veterans and rookies alike. Washington had a 2-0 lead after the first stanza, but that was largely owed to the stellar play of Russian goaltender Simeon Varlamov, who made 20 stops in 20 minutes in his own NHL preseason debut. The rest of the team looked a bit shaky and somewhat nervous.

“I think we were fortunate that we were up 2-0 after the first,” admitted Carlson. “We knew we could do a lot better than that. Then [Carolina] popped one in and we just said, ‘We’re the better team here and this is what we have to do, keep working at it.’ And that’s what we did. We got a few more and it ended up good.”

Carlson’s assist came when a rebound of one of his power play point shots was put back by the Caps’ Tomas Fleischmann.

“I love it,” said the young defenseman. “I love points. I like the power play. I got a shot through there and the guys took care of the rest. It was a big huge relief for me.”

Before Beagle came out of the shower, we were able to chat with his linemate, Andrew Gordon.

Philadelphia Flyers' Kimmo Timonen, top, of Finland, knocks the helmet off Washington Capitals' Andrew Gordon in the third period of an NHL preseason hockey game Wednesday , Oct. 1, 2008, in Philadelphia. The Flyers won 2-1. (AP Photo/Tom Mihalek)
“It was hard and fast but I didn’t really feel like I got a lot done,” said Gordon. “It was one of those transition games. I had a lot of fun. It was great to be around the guys and watch a guy like Viktor Kozlov bounce off about 18 checks in a row. It was really cool to be out on the ice with these guys.”

Gordon then discussed the play of his own line.

“Beags and I know each other pretty well from last season,” Gordon began. “I played with Osala a little bit during summer camps and things so I know what kind of player he is. We’re all just sort of bump-and-grind-and-work-hard-in-the-corners kind of players. We seem to go in there with the same attitude and that was the key for us. It’s easy to play with guys you like and guys you can communicate with. We just sort of helped each other feel our way through. I thought our last shift of the game was our best one. From the very first shift we worked our way up, and we finally figured out how to get the puck back after we dumped it in.

“We laid the foundation and we’ve just got to start building from here. We’ll see what the coaches say to us the next couple of days, and hopefully get into another game. If not, who knows? I’d like to come back any time.”

Gordon shared some of what was going through his head as he prepared for the experience prior to the game.

“I kept trying to tell myself,” he started, “‘It’s just another game. Play the same way you did yesterday and the same way you’re going to play tomorrow. It’s just hockey, it’s just hockey.’ It was a great experience and I’m looking forward to my next one.”

As we walked to the postgame bus, Beagle discussed his night on the ice.

“I didn’t really know what to expect,” he said. “I knew it was going to be faster than I’ve ever experienced, and I was right on that. The plays are made quicker. A lot of the time you’ve got to react a lot quicker than any game I’ve ever player. Besides that it was everything I thought it would be. It was fast-paced. Guys are bigger, guys are stronger and overall it was a tough game.”

Beagle echoed Carlson’s thoughts, saying the team knew it could play better than it did in the first period.

“We talked in the first intermission and we definitely had some jitters going on,” said the big center.  “I think when we got the puck a couple of times we were trying to get it off our sticks fast or make that right play right away. We kind of rushed our plays. Once we settled in, we started making our plays, doing what we do best, and it started working out well.

“The main thing is, we just wanted to get the puck in deep. [The Hurricanes] were putting [Sergei] Samsonov’s line against us quite often, in the first [period] especially. To be thrown into that right away, we knew we just had to keep it in their end, cycle it and try to take it to the net. But if the puck’s not in our end, we’re in no danger.

“It was a lot of fun. I’d love to get back out there with the confidence I have now.”

Carlson played one more game (Sept. 27 vs. the Bruins in Boston) before being reassigned to his junior team. Beagle and Gordon were both sent to AHL Hershey on Sept. 26, but both were brought back for the team’s Oct. 1 game in Philly. Both played even better that night than they did in their debut, especially Beagle. He won four of six face-offs and won a fight with Philly tough guy Steve Downie.

That performance earned Beagle a third preseason game on Oct. 3 against the Flyers in Washington. Beagle acquitted himself well once again, forechecking tenaciously and showing a willingness to go to the high traffic areas on the ice. He was named the game’s third star in that contest.

For Carlson, Beagle and Gordon, the next big step is reaching the NHL. And then staying there.
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