Over the past three games, the defensive pairing of John Carlson and Karl Alzner has skated against the three different opponents' top lines -- combinations that have included Sidney Crosby, Evgeni Malkin, Steven Stamkos, Martin St. Louis and Michael Cammalleri. In those three contests, Washington's young defense tandem hasn't been on the ice for a goal against.
Bruce Boudreau has acknowledged multiple times that young players, particularly defensemen, will have ups and downs. But at the midway point of the 2010-11 campaign, the Capitals coach doesn't hesitate to send Carlson, 20, or Alzner, 22, over the boards against some of the league's top scorers.
"They gave me the confidence that they could do it," Boudreau said. "Individually, they play within themselves and they do the right things. What I mean by doing the right things is they don't do a lot of ad-libbing. They know what their jobs are and they're getting better at them. John's got a little more offense in him, where if he gets the opportunity he goes and Karl has just been outstanding one-on-one. He's got a good stick one-on-one and has really done well."
Against Montreal's top combo of Michael Cammalleri, Tomas Plekanec and Andrei Kostitsyn, only one player (Kostitsyn) managed to get off more than a single shot. In the Winter Classic, the duo helped hold Crosby pointless while leading the Capitals in ice time -- Carlson played 26:28 and Alzner 24:25.
On Tuesday, they shadowed Tampa Bay's top line of Ryan Malone, Steven Stamkos and Martin St. Louis, the latter two of whom are two of the top three scorers in the NHL. In regulation, when that group remained intact for the Lightning, Carlson and Alzner both stepped up to shut down their high-powered foes.
One moment in particular was early in the third period, when Stamkos picked up a turnover in the Capitals' zone and began to build up steam as he headed toward the Washington net. It would have been a prime scoring chance, but Alzner knocked the puck off Stamkos's stick.
Even in a contest like the goaltenders' duel that the Capitals and Lightning played to Tuesday, where mistakes are likely to be magnified, both Alzner and Carlson said they relish the opportunity to play with added responsibility in their first full NHL season.
"It makes me really, really come to play," Alzner said. "It doesn't give me the opportunity to be lazy or careless out there, and that's awesome, because sometimes that's the little added push that you need. I was happy I got to play against Stamkos again. He's good, really tough to stop, but it definitely makes it easier to stay in the game."
Said Carlson: "I want myself to play against those lines. I want to be that person that can do that and succeed at it. I've just got to keep working hard."