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Top rookie defensemen meet up in Montreal

by Arpon Basu
MONTREAL – The matchup between Washington and Montreal on Saturday night is more than just a potential preview of the first round of the playoffs, which would be a rematch of an epic seven-game upset by the Canadiens a season ago.

It's also a matchup of two rookie defensemen whose paths to success are practically mirror images of each other, and who are both being largely overlooked in the Calder Trophy discussion as the season winds down.

With Carolina's Jeff Skinner, San Jose's Logan Couture and Michael Grabner of the New York Islanders putting up such gaudy offensive numbers this season, the standout play of Washington's John Carlson and Montreal's P.K. Subban appears to be getting less recognition when people discuss potential rookie of the year winners.

Count Capitals defenseman Karl Alzner as someone who thinks that should change.

"P.K.'s got great numbers this year and he's playing a ton," said Alzner, Carlson's defense partner. "I think he and (Carlson) are in the same situation. A defenseman (Tyler Myers) won last year, which is good to see, but it's really tough. You've got to have pretty much two different score cards to judge them. Someone might score 25 goals, but a rookie defenseman might keep 60 pucks out of his team's net. That's the way you've got to look at it."

Carlson and Subban, both 21, have each emerged this season as their team's most important defensemen, stepping into a void created by injuries to top-flight puck-moving defensemen Mike Green for Washington and Andrei Markov for Montreal.

While Carlson admits he would like to have a shot at a Calder Trophy nomination, with the playoffs approaching, he has a bigger award on his mind.

"I'd love to be in that conversation, but everyone's going to have their own opinion," Carlson said. "I would take a Stanley Cup over a personal trophy, and I really think we have the talent in the room to do that. We've been playing great. On a personal note, though, I think I've been playing some good hockey and that's what makes me happy."

Carlson, Subban, Anaheim's Cam Fowler and Kevin Shattenkirk of the St. Louis Blues have all put up big offensive numbers from the back end and played major minutes for their teams at a position that is a difficult one for rookies to learn.

Alzner will only be playing his 127th career game Saturday night, hardly making him a grizzled veteran, but he marvels at how easily Carlson has made the transition.

"I'd probably have a pretty tough time," Alzner said. "That's a lot of pressure, there's a lot of stuff being put on his shoulders. Guys look to him to be a difference-maker every night. That's not my game, I can't create opportunities for other guys the way he does. That's why he should be in the conversation."

The common element in the emergence of both Carlson and Subban this season is that they both played huge roles in the playoffs last season for their respective teams.

Carlson played seven games over two brief call-ups to the Capitals last season before sticking for good at the beginning of March, playing the final 15 regular season games and barely maintaining his rookie status for this season. He then played in all seven playoff games against Montreal, most notably scoring the tying goal with 1:21 to play in Washington's Game 2 overtime win.

Subban played just two regular season games last season and was called up to play in Game 6 against Washington, getting an assist in his first game. Through 12 games in the second and third round of Montreal's run to the Eastern Conference final, Subban played fewer than 20 minutes just three times and he finished with 1 goal and 7 assists in 14 playoff games overall.

It's no coincidence that both these playoff-hardened rookie defensemen have been able to make such a large impact this season.

"For my confidence, it was big to get that jump start knowing that you've played in a really tough time in the season and I think that I played pretty well," Carlson said. "So when you come into the next season with that confidence, knowing that you can play here, knowing that you're good enough, you should be feeling pretty good about yourself."

Now, with the playoffs approaching once more and their teams potentially heading toward a rematch, both Carlson and Subban should only further benefit from their exposure to last season's playoff atmosphere.

The result of Saturday night's game should go a long way toward determining whether the Canadiens and Capitals meet once more in the first round this season.

Montreal enters the game clinging to sixth place in the Eastern Conference ahead of the hard-charging New York Rangers and coming off the franchise's worst loss in 13 years, a 7-0 beating at the hands of the rival Boston Bruins on Thursday that essentially put an end to the Canadiens hopes of winning the Northeast Division.

Capitals coach Bruce Boudreau knows his team is not in an ideal situation after what happened to the Canadiens in the last game.

"We think we're in a hornet's nest tonight," Boudreau said. "I've been playing against the Canadiens since 1977, and I've watched them pretty closely. When they lose a game like that, they're going to come back pretty mad. We understand that and we have to be ready. It should be a great test for us."

Boudreau will welcome Eric Fehr back into the lineup after he missed three of the last four games with a shoulder injury, while he said he "wouldn't be surprised" if both Alex Ovechkin and Jason Arnott were able to participate in a full practice Monday. He added that he's "hoping" defensemen Mike Green and Tom Poti should be back in time to play the final three games of the regular season.

An illness for goaltender Michal Neuvirth led the Capitals to callup Braden Holtby to face Montreal's Carey Price. With Semyon Varlamov playing his first game in more a month in a 2-0 loss Friday night in Ottawa, Boudreau said he didn't want him playing on back-to-back nights so soon after returning from injury.

Holtby's last NHL start was in this building -- a 4-2 victory for the Capitals. He drove up from Grand Falls, N.Y., and arrived in Montreal at around 2 a.m. Saturday morning, but he was on the ice for Washington's optional skate and declared himself ready for the game.
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