Karl Alzner took a half-dozen steps into the Washington Capitals’ dressing room and, recognizing what type of conversation was about to begin, did what he could to prevent it.
One of the more superstitious players on the team, Alzner would greatly prefer to avoid the jinx. Three years ago, after a pregame discussion about the success of the penalty kill, the Capitals allowed a pair of power-play goals in a playoff loss to the New York Rangers, causing Alzner to strongly condemn such dialogue afterward.
Only the faintest of chances remained Thursday morning that Alzner would not face the Anaheim Ducks the following night, when the defenseman would be playing in his franchise-record 423rd consecutive game. Still, a streak that had not mattered merely a month ago had grown in personal significance, and when approached following practice, Alzner pointed to the opposite corner of the room, where the Capitals’ starting goaltender was reclining in his stall.
“Braden Holtby, ladies and gentlemen,” Alzner said, his face contorting into wry disapproval once the bait was not taken.
Iron man streaks in hockey can be fickle in nature; one wrong step, one unfortunate collision or one misplaced puck can be the difference between healthy and hurting. Alzner merely needed to look across the dressing room to teammate John Carlson, who had played in 412 consecutive games — 10 shy of tying the franchise record — before sustaining a leg injury while blocking a shot on Dec. 26 from which he could not quickly recover.
Thus, Alzner has been quick to credit his good fortune as much as his talent and resilience when describing the streak, which will surpass the one defenseman Bob Carpenter had snapped on Nov. 26, 1986.
“He’s taken some absolute rockets to the feet and hands and arms and legs and what have you,” coach Barry Trotz said. “There was a time a couple weeks ago [when] it was tape and guts keeping him going.”
Alzner wouldn’t describe the nature of that injury on Thursday, which is likely an indication that, in some manner, it still affects his play. He did share, though, that throughout stretches of his career, he has played despite significant injuries, including broken bones in his hands and toes.
Playing through such maladies — and even worse — was common in the mid-1980s when Carpenter played. Carpenter said he remembered Doug Jarvis, a former teammate who holds the record with 964 consecutive games played, once being carried off the ice after he was knocked out but returning to play in the next day’s game.
“When I played, there were so many ways to get injured,” said Carpenter, whose streak began with his first game on Oct. 10, 1981. “We’d go to Philadelphia and you would fear for your life. People could jump you. A boarding penalty back then wasn’t even a penalty, and now you can get five games for it. I mean, it was definitely more dangerous, I would think, with the way it was. With one referee, I don’t know how many calls they would miss per game. There was a lot of dirty play. It’s just different [now].”
That resilience, Carpenter said, was mostly driven by a fear of losing one’s roster spot. In a way, he believes the competition among players makes Alzner’s streak just as admirable: So many skilled players now play the game that teams can easily justify moving on to someone else.
Alzner, naturally, doesn’t want that to happen, and in an attempt to prolong his career, he has evolved, incorporating more of an offensive mindset in recent years. That well-roundedness, he believes, is also a factor in why he has been able to play through injuries. Forwards who frequently handle the puck or take a lot of shots can be a liability with a hand injury, while talented skaters may be sapped of their speed with a strained groin.
“I’m kind of right in between where I can change my game a little bit to make things work,” Alzner said. “I just am in a good position for that, but I wouldn’t say I’m any tougher than the next guy in here. We all have limits, and I’ve just been lucky that I haven’t been pushed to it yet.”
Carpenter’s streak ended when he was benched for a game because he was told he was being traded to the Rangers — yet the trade hit a snag and wasn’t consummated for several days. Jarvis’ streak ended when he was demoted to the minors two games into the 1987-88 season.
“The way they ended, it’s kind of sad,” Alzner said. “It wasn’t an injury. It was something else. I’m hoping that when mine does it end, it’s an injury and not play-related or anything like that, but I guess only time will tell — and I’ll keep playing hard until then.”