RALEIGH — When the puck dropped Monday night against the New York Rangers, the Carolina Hurricanes had Joni Pitkanen on the ice.
No surprise there, because the defenseman is a fixture in the Canes' lineup and ranks among the NHL's leaders in ice time.
But his partner on defense in the starting lineup was a surprise. Brett Carson was playing his eighth game of the season and only the 13th of his NHL career.
In the course of the 3-1 loss to the Rangers, Carson also spent time with Tim Gleason on defense. In 22 minutes of playing time, he mixed it up with Rangers star Marian Gaborik, battled in the corners and in front of the net and notched an assist on Sergei Samsonov's goal.
"Some of our young players are good players, and they're just going to get better with playing," Canes coach Paul Maurice said. "They're not making any more mistakes than the veteran players we have. Brett's got some confidence, and I think he's going to be a good defenseman."
Carson, 24, was called up from Carolina's American Hockey League affiliate in Albany, N.Y., early last season for five games. Since then, he has endured a harrowing bus crash, undergone offseason shoulder surgery and recovered from a broken wrist early this season.
An injury to defenseman Joe Corvo, who has a lacerated leg, followed by injuries to Gleason and Niclas Wallin allowed Carson, Jay Harrison and Bryan Rodney to be brought in from the Albany River Rats. Gleason returned to the lineup Monday after missing three games - Rodney was reassigned to Albany - and Wallin may be back tonight for the Montreal Canadiens after missing the past eight games with concussion-type symptoms.
"You never wish injuries up here to anyone, but a couple of guys went down and you kind of look for that opportunity and try to make the most of it," Carson said this week. "Last year, I came up and was kind of playing on adrenaline and trying to stick around as long as I could. But this year, I came up with nothing to lose, really.
"I'm just playing my game and not worrying about mistakes. Mistakes happen, but you've just got to kind of let it go and keep playing."
Carson's welcome-to-the-NHL moment last season came in 20 excruciating minutes. In his second game, in Philadelphia against the Flyers, the Canes had a 5-1 lead after two periods with Carson, Rodney, Casey Borer and Tim Conboy -- four defenseman brought in from the Rats - in the lineup.
Then it was as if the Wachovia Center roof fell in on them. The Flyers scored four times to force overtime and then won 6-5 in a shootout.
"That wasn't fun being a part of that, but that was another learning experience," Carson said. "Things started going wrong, and everybody was kind of gripping their sticks tighter, especially us young guys on the back end, myself included.
"Sometimes, things don't go your way, but you can't let it get to you."
Sent back to Albany, Carson was shaken up but not seriously hurt in February when the Rats' team bus crashed in icy conditions.
"I got lucky," he said.
The shoulder surgery also had an upside. Unable to lift weights, Carson did more power skating.
"I'm a big guy, so if I can move good out there, get places quicker, it helps me," said Carson, who has a sturdy 6-foot-4, 210-pound frame. "I'm not overly physical, but if I'm quick I can take time and space away from skilled players, and that was my main focus this summer."
Maurice and the coaches noticed. While Carson was sent to Albany to begin the season and then was sidelined 12 games with the broken wrist, it has been his skating and improved quickness that's earned him more playing time with the Canes.
Averaging more than 20 minutes, Carson has two assists and is plus-1 in the plus/minus rating in eight games. He had eight blocked shots against the Washington Capitals on Dec. 11, the most in a game for the Canes since Glen Wesley's eight in an April 2000 game.
Carson also has helped take some pressure off Pitkanen, who has had six 30-plus-minutes games.
"They've given us new energy," Pitkanen said of Carson, Harrison and Rodney.
Asked to identify Carson's biggest area of improvement, Maurice said, "Overall, strength. So when he's closing on people, his stride is more powerful. He gets to the corners quicker, and when he gets there, he's leaning on guys a little heavier.
"Then, his confidence. When he gets the puck, it's not a throwaway. His head goes up first, and he's looking to make a play."
And he's looking to play for a while.
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