VANCOUVER, British Columbia | When Karl Alzner was growing up in a suburb about 10 miles from GM Place, he and his friends were mesmerized by the tantalizing play of the Vancouver Canucks’ top line.
Tickets were not always easy to come by, but when the teenagers from Burnaby made the trip northwest, it was to watch one of the best three-man units in hockey at the time: powerful Todd Bertuzzi and dynamic Markus Naslund flanking a shifty playmaking center named Brendan Morrison.
“All of my buddies were always like, ‘Man, that line is so sweet. What would it be like to be a part of a line like that?’ ” Alzner said. “It is kind of cool that now we’re on the same team. It almost doesn’t feel like it is real.”
On Friday night, Morrison will return to the building where he has scored 211 of his 529 career points, but expect the 21-year-old defenseman who was recalled Monday to be the most excited guy in the Washington Capitals’ dressing room.
Alzner has played a few games in this building. As a member of the Calgary Hitmen in the Western Hockey League, his team squared off with the Vancouver Giants here. He also donned a Team Canada sweater here as a junior, but his first NHL game in his hometown rink should be a seminal experience.
“There are little things about the building - like the way it smells, the way the stands are - and it really makes me excited to be there again,” Alzner said. “I can’t wait to see it from the other point now.”
The game will be Alzner’s 37th of his NHL career and seventh with the Caps this season. It also will be the second contest in another attempt by Alzner to prove he belongs at this level for good.
He was the fifth pick in the 2007 draft and has been one of the organization’s prize possessions ever since. Alzner has been successful at every level, but the quality of his performance has varied with Washington.
Patience is not a virtue often practiced by sports fans, and those who pack Verizon Center eagerly wait for Alzner to fulfill the high expectations bestowed upon him.
“I don’t know. It is such a hard thing,” coach Bruce Boudreau said when asked what Alzner needs to do to become a permanent fixture on his roster. “I want to see him be really consistent. The last time he was up here, it was the consistency. I thought he had three really good games, a mediocre game and a not-so-good game. If he could keep that consistency like the very first time he played when he was up here [Nov. 25 against Buffalo], he would be hard to send down.”
No other player in the organization benefited more from the end of the Michael Nylander saga than Alzner. His status as a premium prospect was working against him.
As the No. 5 pick, Alzner’s entry-level contract is worth as much as $1.675 million a season if he meets all of the performance incentives. Being with a franchise that was snug against the salary cap and that boasted eight defensemen at the NHL level who were not exempt from waivers like Alzner blocked his path.
The competition for playing time remains, but gone with the removal of Nylander’s $4.875 million cap hit are worries that the Caps can’t afford to keep Alzner if his play warrants it.
He got off to a nice start in that department Tuesday at Colorado. Alzner logged 21 minutes, 35 seconds of ice time, including more than nine minutes in the third period when the Caps had two defensemen injured and either one or two in the penalty box much of the period.
“[Alzner] didn’t look tired at all. He is just so sound positionally,” Boudreau said. “He conserves his energy when he needs to, and he can skate when he has to.”
About six weeks ago, Alzner contacted Washington’s team services manager, Ian Anderson, about securing four tickets for Friday’s game. He wanted his mother, father, sister and her boyfriend to be able to see the Caps play - and maybe him as well if things broke right.
Vancouver is a tough ticket because the Canucks draw well and the Caps’ roster is full of Western Canadians. Anderson told Alzner this week that, had he not made the early request, there would have been no tickets available when he was recalled.
“Everyone is trying really hard [to get tickets] and going crazy,” Alzner said. “My one buddy said his mom bought him two or three tickets a couple of months ago, so he’s laughing at everyone now.”
Alzner’s exuberance could have been tempered when he found out he arrived just in time for the team’s annual rookie dinner. A relatively recent tradition in the NHL (there were no such dinners when Boudreau played), it is an expensive night of dining and bonding - and Alzner will be one of the guys splitting the tab.
“It is a great trip to have it on,” he said. “A rookie dinner in my hometown? I don’t think many people get to experience that or have that chance. … It will be fun, and it is going to be expensive, but it is worth it because you only do one and then you get free meals for however long you can stick around.”
Note - Defensemen Mike Green and Shaone Morrisonn practiced Wednesday after leaving Tuesday’s game with injuries.