Karl Alzner’s prolific playoff beard belies his 22 years of age and first real opportunity to be a No. 1 defenseman in the NHL. But wisdom derived from childhood taught him a very important lesson that he and Capitals defense partner John Carlson are putting into practice.
“Have a short memory,” Alzner said. “To be a shutdown defenseman - to be any defenseman - that’s very, very necessary.”
That happened in Game 4 against the New York Rangers when Alzner and Carlson were on the ice for back-to-back goals that seemed to demoralize them and the rest of the Caps. But like a quarterback who throws an interception, having short memories helped the young defensemen get back on track and lead Washington to a win in that game and, ultimately, the series.
“I think that’s definitely a thing you got to learn as a player, and things happen and bounces go the other way,” Carlson said.
As Alzner has said numerous times, it’s impossible for any defensive pair to be perfect. Goals are going to happen, even brutal ones like those scored in that dreadful second period at Madison Square Garden. But down the stretch this year, Alzner and Carlson have been on the ice in just about every clutch situation.
“I have total confidence in both John and Karl, so when it is needed for them to be out there they go out there,” coach Bruce Boudreau said.
Not many people could have seen this coming in training camp. Mike Green was established as the No. 1 on the blue line, with Tom Poti also higher on the depth chart. Alzner and Carlson were still prospects, the fruit of general manager George McPhee’s bountiful drafts and not expected to jump into this spot as the top shutdown pair right away.
“The fact that we were given the chance and played well was nice - it was a little bit surprising but I’m happy that it’s my first year and I’m already in the role I was hoping to be in three, four, five years down the road,” Alzner said. “That’s my favorite thing to do is to shut guys down.”
He and Carlson, 21, have received that opportunity - partially by default because of injuries but more because the maturation process has happened quickly. Carlson averaged more than 25 minutes a game and Alzner more than 23.
“They’re young, and I’m sure back in junior they played the same or maybe even more minutes,” fellow defenseman Jeff Schultz said. “It’s just kind of the effect of them doing that has allowed them to take on larger roles and more minutes on this team.”
With increased minutes, Alzner and Carlson have also had to defend opponents’ best players. Against the Rangers, it meant going up against Marian Gaborik’s line - and they mostly shut the offensive star down for five games. Yet even when New York broke through, Alzner knew he’d be back out onto the ice quickly - because he and Carlson have earned that trust from Boudreau.
“I hope it’s all been earned. I hope he knows it doesn’t matter what happens to us on the ice, we’re still going to come to play and play hard,” Alzner said. “[Boudreau] just knows that; he knows we’re not going to give up on a game and we’re not going to give up on the team.”