Connor Carrick scores his first NHL goal on a breakaway
Imagine growing up a Chicago Blackhawks fan. Going to games. Singing the team’s fight song. Screaming your lungs out at the playing of the national anthem.
Now, imagine you’re 19 and you’re about to play in your first NHL game in a Washington Capitals jersey in that very same building.
Your friends and family are in the stands and while you’re stretching in the visiting dressing room you hear the fans in the arena wildly celebrating a Stanley Cup.
And then you hear the fight song.
Now you know how Connor Carrick felt in the minutes leading up to the Capitals’ season opener against the Blackhawks at the UnitedCenter Tuesday night.
“It was the first time I heard that [fight] song without singing it,” Carrick confessed on Wednesday, the morning after having the most horribly wonderful night of his life.
Carrick said he’ll never forget the feeling of standing on the ice during the playing of his first NHL national anthem.
He also won’t forget the look on his father’s face after one of his mistakes ended up in the back of the Capitals’ net.
“It was pretty difficult emotionally,” Carrick said. “Playing in your hometown for your first game, there’s a lot of nerves. I tried to keep it together. I didn’t think I played my best game. I got some mistakes out of the way and hopefully, I get another kick at it and I’m better the second time around.”
Capitals coach Adam Oates made it clear that Carrick will be back in the lineup Thursday night when the Caps face the Calgary Flames in their home opener.
“Being an ex-player, you know what playing your first game feels like,” Oates said. “It’s for real. Quite honestly, I think he did a pretty good job. Yeah, he made mistakes, but we all did. He’s no different. He’s been a great player wherever he’s played the last few years of his life. He’s handled success and failure and it’s just a matter of rolling with it.”
Playing in front of about 15 to 20 family and friends on a third defense pairing with Jack Hillen, Carrick was on the ice for two of Chicago’s six goals and in the penalty box for another.
Despite giving up more than 3 inches and nearly 40 pounds to Brandon Bollig, Carrick said he said he should have done a better job of boxing out Chicago’s power forward on the game’s first goal.
“I gave him a shove, the puck went right on his tape,” Carrick said. “There’s no excuse for that. That’s a flat-out mistake on my end. They scored and 20,000 people saw it.”
Carrick also took a hooking penalty that led to Brent Seabrook’s power-play goal in the second period and had a pass intended for Alex Ovechkin intercepted by Duncan Keith, who started a rush that resulted in Brandon Saad’s game-tying goal, a play in which both John Erskine and Carrick failed to pick up Saad.
“That was a really good read [by Keith], but you’ve got to take care of the puck at the blue line,” Carrick said.
Carrick said he was comforted by the group hug he received from his family after the game.
“Those were people I wanted to make smile more times than not,” he said. “I would have liked a couple do-overs, but there’s no mulligans in this game, so I’ll live with it. That’s what pros do.”
That’s the funny thing. Two weeks ago, Carrick didn’t even have a contract and was preparing to return to Plymouth, Ontario for his final year of junior hockey. Instead, he’s being baptized by fire in a league where forgiveness is hard to come by.
That’s why the pat on the back Oates gave Carrick as he got on the team charter back to D.C. meant so much to him.
“The positive is that it’s over with,” Carrick said. “Coach Oates said that as soon as I got on the plane. ‘One down. It’s done.’ That’s really what it comes down to. You need to get used to them and getting over them. That’s what’s important, really.”
Oates said in a perfect world he would need 40 NHL games to give Carrick a proper evaluation.
“But you don’t have the latitude of having 40 games,” Oates said. “Hopefully, the team wins enough games that you can keep that process going as opposed to putting pressure on ourselves.”
In other words, Oates can live with Carrick making some mistakes early in his NHL career, as long as the Caps are winning games and staying in the playoff hunt. For now, Oates seems willing to make that tradeoff, hoping Carrick’s good games far outweigh his shaky ones.
Carrick said that although the stakes are higher than they’ve ever been in his career, he’s been down this road before.
“My first [NHL] preseason game was atrocious, really, really bad,” he said. “I thought I was going home the next day.”
“My first OHL game was horrible. It was in Sault Ste. Marie. It was really, really bad.
“I’m a guy who needs to be comfortable, I need to feel at ease and I didn’t. That’s my own fault for nor preparing myself mentally. It was my first game, so hopefully I have a better second.”