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On the whole, though, Carson would just as soon forget last season. It was epitomized by the penalty shot he was awarded in his first game in a Detroit uniform. "What are you doing?" Carson hollered at referee Lance Roberts as Roberts made the call. "You can't call a penalty shot! I don't have enough pressure on me?"
Mike Liut, the Hartford Whaler goalie at the time, stuffed Carson's attempt, and the Red Wings lost 4-3. They ended up with the third-worst record in the league (28-38-14) and missed the playoffs for the first time in three years. Carson struggled, sitting out 21 games with a torn ligament in his right knee and finishing the season with mononucleosis. All told, he missed 32 games and scored only 21 goals, after having averaged 47 in his first three seasons.
During the summer, Carson worked out extensively for the first time, and the early returns show that his efforts have paid off. First-year general manager and coach Bryan Murray says, "Carson's line must have won five games for us. But what I like about him most is he's got a good head on his shoulders. He really cares about what's going on with this team."
Playing in the tight-checking Norris Division and on a team that has a pretty fair center named Steve Yzerman playing ahead of him, Carson may have seen the last of his days as a 50-goal scorer. Going into this season, he had scored a startling 43% of his goals on the power play, but Yzerman gets most of the time in man-advantage situations. At week's end, only two of Carson's 11 goals this season had come on the power play.
Nor does Carson play alongside world-class wings like Kurri and the Kings' Luc Robitaille. "I can accept my role with this team," he says. "What's hard are the expectations. The average fan thinks I'm just a goal scorer. But Bryan doesn't emphasize numbers. He told me earlier this year, 'I kept hearing how weak you were defensively. Am I missing something?' The important thing is that things are heading in the right direction on this team."
Indeed, through Sunday the Red Wings were 16-14-4, which is a nine-point improvement over their 11-18-5 start of a year ago. Carson had 29 points centering a line with Shawn Burr and Bob Probert. "He's not going to get the points on this team that he did in L.A.," says Burr, a defensive specialist who, with 12 goals at week's end, is off to the best offensive start of his career. "But you might as well give Jimmy two or three of my goals. He draws all the attention, then slides the puck over to me, so all I have to do is push it in."
Such a play occurred on Nov. 27, when Gretzky and the Kings were in town. Carson had set up John Chabot for a power-play goal that gave Detroit a 3-1 third-period lead before Los Angeles rallied to tie the score with 4:36 left. Last season that would have been the death knell for the Wings. The momentum was against them; the crowd was fiat. Suddenly, with 2:05 to go, Carson darted into the L.A. zone, collected a loose puck and wheeled behind the net. As both Kings defensemen converged on him, he dished a neat little backhand pass to the onrushing Probert, who buried the winning goal.
Afterward, Carson and his girlfriend, Paula Alexander, slid into the front seat of her car. They were meeting family and friends for sandwiches—Carson's parents, five or six of his 200-plus cousins in the Detroit area and a couple of teammates. Carson was still basking in the glow of the victory, the third of a streak that would reach five—the Red Wings' best stretch of hockey in two years. "A lot of good things are happening on this team, you know?" he said. "It's fun. But can you imagine...."
Here Carson's voice drifted to the edge of whimsy. You could almost see the images inside his head, almost see him as a 10-year-old, snapping pucks into that goal in his basement while the radio broadcast the games. "Can you imagine if that game had been played in the old Olympia?" he said. "Man, that would have been something."