Capitals defenseman Karl Alzner focuses on playing hockey with a clear mind

Touted 21-year-old defenseman Karl Alzner, on his new approach: "I just worry about playing hockey and enjoying myself."
Touted 21-year-old defenseman Karl Alzner, on his new approach: "I just worry about playing hockey and enjoying myself." (Toni L. Sandys/the Washington Post)
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By Tarik El-Bashir
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, December 18, 2009

VANCOUVER, B.C. -- With tickets to Friday's game so scarce, Karl Alzner could only secure four to his first NHL game at GM Place, which is about a 20-minute drive from his home town of Burnaby, B.C..

In the past, a disappointment such as that, and the ensuing scramble to purchase additional tickets for friends and family, might have driven the Washington Capitals' top prospect to distraction. But these days, Alzner refuses to allow life's small complications to consume him -- a new outlook he says has made him more focused on the ice.

"My mind is a lot more clear," the 21-year-old said. "I don't think about routine, stuff behind the scenes, being sent down. I just worry about playing hockey and enjoying myself. Because of that, I'm a lot more relaxed on the ice."

There was a time when Alzner had to arrive at the rink precisely at the same time before each game. He would tap his stick on the ice 88 times during the national anthem. Mistakes made in the first period still bugged him in the third because he believed the miscue, no matter how minor, might give the coaching staff enough reason to send him back to the minors.

Those distractions no longer preoccupy his thoughts. With some help from his father, Gunther Alzner, he quit worrying about routines and superstitions at the end of last season and hasn't allowed any of it to creep back into his game preparation.

"I hated it because everything was on a schedule," Karl Alzner said. "My schedule started at 5 o'clock. But sometimes I wouldn't get to the rink until 5:02. That would throw me off. My mind would be so messed up because of things like that."

Added Gunther Alzner, who helped coach his son from ages 6 to 12: "I didn't even know about some of [the routines]. I told him it would play mind games with him and might end up hurting his game if he worried too much about whether he put his right skate on before his left skate. If he didn't do it just right, he might talk himself into having a bad game."

"I told him he's good enough to play, but to be patient and your day will come. Maybe it's just around the corner. With me, it's always positive."

Alzner's calm figures to be tested when he faces Vancouver, his favorite team as a boy, in the arena where he cheered his favorite Canuck, Trevor Linden. His mother, father, sister and a family friend will be among the capacity crowd, with plenty of other family and friends watching on television.

"I have such good memories about being in this rink," said Alzner, who has played here as a junior with the Calgary Hitmen and as a member of Team Canada. "I told my dad when I was young that I wanted to own this rink, because I thought it was so cool."

The Capitals are 6-0-0 with Alzner in the lineup this season, but Coach Bruce Boudreau said he must see more consistency from the fifth overall pick in 2007 if he wants to continue getting ice time. With Michael Nylander gone, the team has the cap space and roster spot to keep Alzner. But they also have nine defensemen on the roster, and he's the only one who doesn't have to clear waivers before being demoted to the minor league Hershey Bears.

"The last time he was up here, I thought he played three really good games, a mediocre game and one not-so-good game," Boudreau said. "If he can keep that consistency, play like he did in that very first game he was up here, he would be hard to send down."

Alzner shined in his first game of this recall, a 6-1 victory in Colorado on Tuesday. He skated a season-high 21 minutes 35 seconds, including almost 10 minutes in the third period because the Capitals were down two defensemen. He also blocked four shots.

"Now, I have my head up a lot more," he said.

Even before suiting up Friday, Alzner's homecoming provided him with some lifelong memories. Wednesday night, Alzner and some of the other young and/or inexperienced Capitals hosted the team for the annual rookie dinner, a rite of passage in the NHL. He didn't want to divulge any details, but he said he called his credit card company ahead of time to warn them of an impending "expensive" expenditure.

Capitals notes: Semyon Varlamov (groin strain) faced shots during practice Thursday and is expected to practice fully Friday for the first time since getting hurt Dec. 7. . . .

Mike Green (face laceration) and Shaone Morrisonn (undisclosed injury) practiced and are available to play, according to Boudreau. . . .

Colorado's David Koci escaped suspension for his check from behind on Green on Tuesday night. Koci only received a fine. "Wow," is all Boudreau would say before declining further comment.

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