By Tarik El-Bashir
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, November 28, 2008
In the moments before his NHL debut on Wednesday, Washington Capitals prospect Karl Alzner pulled aside his defensive partner, Milan Jurcina, and made a request.
"Do you mind if I keep it simple tonight?" Alzner recalled telling Jurcina. "When you over-think things, that's when things go bad."
Alzner, who was recalled from the minor league Hershey (Pa.) Bears with three others on Tuesday, indeed kept it simple against the Atlanta Thrashers, and the result was a respectable performance for a 20-year-old skating in his first big league game at a sold-out Verizon Center.
Alzner quickly earned the confidence of Coach Bruce Boudreau, who gave the rookie 21 minutes 6 seconds of ice time, second only to Alex Ovechkin. Alzner, the fifth overall pick in 2007 and a player the Capitals hope will become a mainstay on the blueline for years to come, also recorded a shot on goal, was credited with two hits (tied for the team lead) and was a big reason the Capitals limited the Thrashers to 18 shots in a 5-3 victory that snapped a three-game losing streak.
"What I really liked of Karl and Sami [Lepisto], they followed the game plan," Boudreau said of two of the call-ups. "There was no ad-libbing. Consequently, they were successful."
Alzner, Lepisto, Chris Bourque and Graham Mink were summoned from the minors to bolster a lineup beset by injuries. In all, seven regulars were sidelined against the Thrashers, and the situation doesn't appear to be getting better heading into tonight's game against Saku Koivu (team-best 18 points) and the Montreal Canadiens, who beat the Stanley Cup champion Red Wings on Wednesday in Detroit, 3-1.
Defenseman Tom Poti suffered a strained groin muscle in the third period against the Thrashers and did not practice yesterday. Although he is not listed as hurt, his status likely won't be known until this morning's pregame skate. If Poti is unable to suit up, that would leave the Capitals with only five healthy defensemen and minus at least seven players who were on the opening night roster.
Boyd Gordon (back spasms) is questionable; John Erskine (mild concussion), Mike Green (bruised shoulder), Sergei Fedorov (sprained ankle) and Alexander Semin (upper back strain) are not expected to return until next week. Jeff Schultz (broken finger) and Chris Clark (stress fracture in his forearm) will miss at least a month.
"Other than that, we're fine," Boudreau cracked yesterday.
The injuries are coming at exactly the wrong time for the Capitals, who are in the midst of their busiest month. But they opened the door for Alzner, who probably was good enough to make the team out of training camp. But because of the team's proximity to the salary cap ceiling, and General Manager George McPhee's belief that almost all prospects can benefit from time in the minors, he was demoted to Hershey on Oct. 6, four days before the Capitals' opener.
Alzner has made the most of his 20 games with the Bears, posting two goals and seven assists and leading the team in plus-minus with a plus-15 rating. Then on Tuesday he got the break -- and the call -- he had been waiting for. Schultz and Clark were placed on long-term injured reserve, freeing up $3.39 million in cap space. Alzner was en route to Washington a few hours later and said he could hardly sleep in anticipation of his first game.
"It was disappointing after being just inches away from realizing my dream," Alzner said of the demotion. "But I had tons of fun, and it was probably the best thing for me."
Alzner said Hershey helped ease his transition from juniors to the pro ranks. But nothing, he said, prepared him for going one-on-one with Thrashers star Ilya Kovalchuk, who was every bit as fast, strong and skilled as he appeared on television.
"He makes plays that you wouldn't even think about even trying," Alzner said.
Even so, Alzner rarely, if ever, looked lost or out of place. He usually was in proper position, kept his head on a swivel and used his stick on a number of occasions to separate an opposing player from the puck. His outlet passes were crisp and accurate and his one shot tested Atlanta goalie Ondrej Pavelec.
But the performance wasn't perfect. At times, Alzner got pushed around in his own zone, both in front of the net and in the corners. And on a number of occasions, he gave forwards too much room, resulting in a shot against.
Asked to assess his performance, he graded himself a "low B."
"I felt all right," Alzner said. "It's going to come. Hopefully it will just take a few games."
Capitals Notes: José Theodore is expected to start in goal against Montreal, the team that drafted him 44th overall in 1994. In his only previous start against the Canadiens, he yielded eight goals as a member of the Colorado Avalanche in 2006. "It can only get better, I hope," Boudreau said. . . . Athletic trainer Greg Smith will work his 1,000th NHL game tonight.