- The Washington Times - Wednesday, December 30, 2015

The only game Matt Niskanen has missed since mid-February 2013 was the regular-season finale a year later, when the Pittsburgh Penguins decided to give him a bit of rest before the playoffs began.

That’s a stretch of 234 appearances in 235 games for Niskanen, who, despite his own durability, still has a special regard for the 412-game streak that fellow defenseman John Carlson had snapped on Monday.

“Incredible,” Niskanen said. “It’s incredible.”

Carlson’s streak, which dated to April 9, 2010, the end of his rookie season, ended when he sat out of the Washington Capitals‘ road victory over the Buffalo Sabres because of an unspecified leg injury. It fell 10 games shy of center Bob Carpenter’s franchise-record 422-game streak, which began with Carpenter’s debut on Oct. 10, 1981 and was snapped on Nov. 26, 1986 — just over three years before Carlson was born.

Now, Karl Alzner carries the burden of the Capitals‘ ironman streak, having coincidentally played in his 412th consecutive game on Wednesday at home against the Sabres. That the two players simultaneously carried streaks of such magnitude — over five cumulative seasons without missing a game — speaks, in some regards, to the stability Washington has had on defense.

So, too, does the fact that through Tuesday, the Capitals had only used eight defensemen this season. Until Connor Carrick replaced Carlson on Monday, Washington was one of only three teams, including the New Jersey Devils and Ottawa Senators, to dress only seven defensemen for a game this year.

The Capitals used 10 different defensemen last year, with Cameron Schilling playing in four games and Steve Oleksy suiting up for one. It’s a far cry from the previous season, when they used a league-high 14 players at the position — 11 of which played in at least 13 games.

“It speaks to the depth of the organization,” said Taylor Chorney, who began the year as the Capitals‘ seventh defensemen but has been in the mix since Brooks Orpik sustained an unspecified leg injury on Nov. 10. “There’s guys that can slide in and out of the lineup, and I don’t think a whole lot changes. Obviously, you miss a guy like Carly. He’s one of the best players on our team. He’s having a great year, but [Carrick has] been having a good year in Hershey and I think he stepped in and did a good job last game.”

After Orpik was hurt in a game against the Detroit Red Wings, the Capitals moved Nate Schmidt, who had otherwise been playing third-pair minutes with Dmitry Orlov, alongside Carlson on the top line. On Monday, and again on Wednesday, Schmidt was again with Orlov, with Alzner and Niskanen playing as the top pairing and Chorney moving to the left side to join Carrick.

Such a shuffle, Chorney said, isn’t too difficult to manage individually. Knowing that Carrick hadn’t played for the Capitals since April 13, 2014, the end of a season in which he made 34 appearances, Chorney understood that the duo wasn’t going to try to take any risks. Carrick played 19 shifts over 9:19 on Monday; Chorney was on the ice for a season-high 23 shifts, though the length of his shifts, at an average of 32 seconds, was the shortest of his season.

“I think that we knew that we were going to keep it simple,” Chorney said. “It’s his first game. Any game, you’re not expecting to go out there and just dominate. You want to go out there and be reliable and just kind of build off that, and I think we did a good job of that.”

Coach Barry Trotz said Wednesday he trusts that Schmidt and Chorney, in their increased roles, are “going to get it done.” One advantage of their success is that the Capitals‘ next wave of defensemen, including Madison Bowey, Tyler Lewington and Christian Djoos, can continue to marinate in the minors. The team figures Bowey will make his debut at some point this season.

“The trickle-down effect is that your young guys are getting a lot of playing time in Hershey, getting lots of roles, and like I say, no one’s ever not developed when you play a lot in Hershey,” Trotz said. “You look at teams like Detroit, they keep their guys down there until they need waivers pretty well. There’s a couple exceptions, but it just lets your players continue to develop.”

Carlson, who underwent an MRI examination on Wednesday morning, missed his second consecutive game that night against the Sabres. He finished the game against the Montreal Canadiens on Saturday, missed practice on Sunday and participated in the morning skate and pregame warm-ups on Monday, albeit very briefly.

That he couldn’t play in either of the Capitals‘ last two games speaks not only to the nature of the injury, from which a return remains uncertain, but to the resilience and fortune he needed to play in so many games.

“It’s a tribute to their durability,” Niskanen said, referring to Alzner’s streak as well. “Certainly, they’ve played through some things. They’ve showed toughness where maybe they didn’t feel their best on a number of nights and they gutted it out. They’re doing that for their teammates. They’re not doing that for themselves. That’s a pretty great streak that they had — and they had a little bit of luck, too.”

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