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With Carlson Out, Red-Hot Gustafsson Preps For Bigger Role With Capitals

Erik Gustafsson came in on a one-year deal this offseason, and he’s since proven to be one of the Washington Capitals’ most important pieces so far. He’ll have to keep it up with John Carlson out.



WASHINGTON — In the third period of a Dec. 17 game against the Toronto Maple Leafs, Erik Gustafsson found a clear shooting lane, not hesitating as he pulled back and whipped a quick shot top shelf. In a flash, it was in the net and out, causing a bit of a delay in realizing that the puck had actually crossed the goal line, completing his first career hat trick.

As Run-D.M.C.'s "It's Tricky" blasted through Capital One Arena, the Swede admittedly "blacked out" as the hats flew down. He played the role of hero in a 5-2 victory that night, and it wouldn't stop there, as it set the stage for what's now a five-game point streak as he continues to prove to be one of the biggest steals of the 2022 offseason after inking a one-year, $800,000 deal to open the summer.

"It's always fun to score goal. That's what you want to do, and you want to help the team win… it's incredible how this team is working together," Gustafsson said.

Now, with John Carlson out indefinitely after taking a slap shot to the face on Friday, Gustafsson will have to keep that strong play going, and he'll likely be taking on a bigger role as the Capitals look to keep the good times rolling.

Through 35 games this season, Gustafsson has put up five goals and 14 assists for 19 points and a +/- of plus-3 while averaging 19:22 minutes per game. He is on pace for 43 points this season, and he is the first D.C. defender to tally five goals over a five-game stretch since Mike Green in 2013.

"Oh God… that guy's a stud," Charlie Lindgren said of Gustafsson, adding, "He's a heck of a hockey player, even better guy."

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Gustafsson's 14 assists are the most among defensemen this season with Carlson and Nick Jensen, and he ranks second in offensive point shares (1.2) and defensive point shares (1.7). He has also gotten time on the power play thanks to his puck-moving prowess and vision.

"He's been really good offensively all year, he's been strong defensively for us," head coach Peter Laviolette said. "He's just been a really good addition to our club. It's nice to see him get rewarded."

Though he's been a welcome addition on the power play and the penalty kill, he has also arguably the team's best blueliner at even strength. At 5-on-5, he leads all Washington defensemen in Corsi-for percentage (54.28), expected goals-for percentage (54) and scoring chances-for percentage (54.37).

That strong two-way play will also prove huge with not only Carlson hurt but Martin Fehervary still recovering from an upper-body injury he suffered on Dec. 3.

"I don't know how he's seen by everyone else, but we know what he can do," van Riemsdyk said. "He's extremely smart, he can do everything with the puck. in the O-zone, he's extremely gifted and talented. And in the D-zone, he's got a great stick and breaks the puck out really well."

Overall, Gustafsson's role will become even more important, as he'll be relied upon to bring that offense that No. 74 brings on special teams while shutting things down in his own end. But given Gustafsson's play in his first season with Washington, the Capitals know that he'll rise to the occasion.

"He's been unbelievable… overall, offensively, he's been dynamite. His first pass out of the D-zone is excellent," Matt Irwin, who has also been stepping up defensively amid injuries, said. "Finding that low center, just having that extra second of patience with the puck to find an open guy, he's been tremendous. I've really enjoyed watching him, and when I've had the opportunity to play with him, it's been great."