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Carle still focused on the ultimate prize

by Mike G. Morreale
PHILADELPHIA -- When defenseman Matt Carle was asked to provide the greatest single moment of his career, he smiled and recalled what could still be considered the biggest goal of the Philadelphia Flyers' season.

It was in the third period of the regular-season finale against the New York Rangers and the Flyers had to win to qualify for the playoffs.

Rangers goalie Henrik Lundqvist was stopping everything sent in his direction -- until Carle took a pass from Jeff Carter in the slot and flipped it into the right side of the net to pull the Flyers into a 1-1 tie with 13:06 left in regulation.

The Flyers ultimately won the game 2-1 in a shootout to make the playoffs and have been on a pretty historic playoff roll ever since. Chalk one up for the 2006 Hobey Baker Award-winner from the University of Denver.

"That goal (against New York) was big," Carle told "Sometimes, they'll be games where you create chances and guys don't score. Then there are times you might have a breakout pass and get an assist or score that goal to contribute in some capacity. I'm just glad I was able to help get our team into the playoffs.

"But certainly, the highlight of my career so far is being here and playing for a Stanley Cup."

Bingo. That's precisely the answer any coach would want to hear from a budding 25-year-old defenseman who still possesses tons of unrealized potential. Sure, Carle's sixth goal of the regular season might have been the biggest of his young NHL career, but it hasn't distorted his sense of reality and focus on the ultimate prize.

Reaching this point didn't come without its share of ups and downs. But he's happy, enjoying life and ecstatic to have the opportunity to be playing alongside a likely Hall of Fame defenseman in Chris Pronger in the City of Brotherly Love.

"I think playing with Prongs has really helped him a lot," Flyers goalie Brian Boucher said. "He's a pretty steady guy as a partner, knowing what you're going to get every night. Matty is an intelligent player, and he figures things out pretty quick. He's got some talent and it's good to see him have some success after getting bounced around a little bit. I think he's found a nice place here in Philly along the blue line."

In 19 postseason games, Carle ranks third on the team in ice time per game (25:29), second in shifts (34.5) and blocked shots (44), first in plus-minus rating (plus-7) and second among the team's defensemen in takeaways (9). Not bad for the kid from Anchorage, Alaska, who was the first American-born player to capture World Junior and NCAA Championships in the same season (2003-04).

"The coaching staff in Denver did a really good job developing me and allowing me to roam and kind of do my thing as a player," Carle said.

Carle was actually the first player in the history of the Western Collegiate Hockey Association to earn Player of the Year and Defensive Player of the Year in the same season. That came in 2005-06, when he led the nation in assists (42) and led all NCAA defenseman in goals (11).

He was selected in the second round, No. 47, by the San Jose Sharks in the 2003 Entry Draft and forfeited his senior year at Denver to join the team in March 2006. Carle recorded 3 goals and 3 assists in his first 12 NHL regular-season games, then added 3 assists in 11 playoff games. In his first full season with the Sharks in 2006-07, Carle recorded 11 goals and 42 points in 77 games and was named to the NHL All-Rookie Team. Carle signed a four-year contract extension with San Jose in November 2007 -- but less than nine months later he was dealt to Tampa Bay in the big deal that brought defenseman Dan Boyle to the Sharks.

"I remember Craig Rivet and I had a pretty good relationship (on the Sharks) and we got traded on the same day so it was kind of funny how that worked out," Carle said. "I had a lot of friends there; I was good buddies with Joe Pavelski and my assistant coach, Rob Zettler, had a pretty big hand in developing me.

"Looking back, I know it helped me a lot to be spending more time out on the ice. You don't really understand the payoff until a little bit down the road."

Then came his trade to the Flyers -- after just 12 games with the Lightning.

"That second trade was much more of a shock than the first one," he recalled. "I still can't really put my finger on it, but it's OK. It's part of hockey and I understand that. It was a blessing in disguise and might have been difficult to take at the time. But it's one of those things I look back on and I'm happy at where I'm at."

The feeling is certainly mutual. In Carle, General Manager Paul Holmgren has provided Pronger with a steady partner who is willing to take criticism and learn from his mistakes.

Pronger could see this coming the moment he began working with Carle earlier this season.

"It's not just these playoffs," Pronger said. "You look at his body of work throughout the course of the season. He's played extremely well. Look at his patience with the puck and playmaking ability, and lot of times his ability to play defense gets overlooked. He's a solid one-on-one player and real good in the corners in getting loose pucks and moving it up to our forwards. That's something we preach to one another -- getting it up to our forwards and getting up into the attack."

Follow Mike Morreale on Twitter at: @mike_morreale
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