By Katie Carrera
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, January 6, 2011; 12:31 AM
The play had all the makings of a prime scoring chance for Tampa Bay's Steven Stamkos when the high-scoring center corralled the puck after the Washington Capitals coughed it up in their zone Tuesday night. As Stamkos turned to head back toward the net, though, Capitals defenseman Karl Alzner deftly knocked the puck off his stick, and what seconds earlier looked like a soon-to-be goal for the Lightning fizzled quickly into memory.
For Alzner and his defensive partner, John Carlson, the ability to calmly diminish the threat of an opposing chance has become a common trait. Over the past week, the duo's strong play has prompted Coach Bruce Boudreau to match them against some of the most potent offensive players in the league.
In each of the past three games, Alzner and Carlson earned the assignment against opposing teams' top lines - a task that included shutting down Pittsburgh's Sidney Crosby, Montreal's Michael Cammalleri and Tampa Bay's No. 1 trio that includes Stamkos and Martin St. Louis.
For two young blue-liners - Alzner is 22, Carlson 20 - at the halfway point of their first full NHL campaign, it's a pressure-packed position to fill every day. Alzner and Carlson agreed, though, that the additional responsibility only builds their confidence.
"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."
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."
Over the past three games as they've played the bulk of their minutes against top lines, neither Carlson nor Alzner has been on the ice for a goal against, and in the last nine contests, they've accumulated plus-7 and plus-8 ratings, respectively.
In the Capitals' 3-0 win against Montreal on Dec. 28, the pairing matched up against Cammalleri, Tomas Plekanec and Andrei Kostitsyn, holding the first two players to one shot apiece. Against Pittsburgh in the Winter Classic on Saturday, Carlson and Alzner limited space and options to hold Crosby, the NHL's leading scorer, without a point. They also saw the most ice time for Washington against the Penguins, a spot usually held by fellow defenseman Mike Green, with Carlson leading with 26 minutes 28 seconds and Alzner with 24:25.
Tampa Bay's line of Ryan Malone, Stamkos and St. Louis, the latter two of whom stood second and third in the league in scoring, posed yet another challenge on Tuesday night. But Alzner and Carlson counteracted the Lightning's thorough combination of grit, speed and scoring instinct to hold the trio off the scoresheet in regulation. The Lightning won in overtime, 1-0.
Boudreau has long said he expects both players to have their bouts with inconsistency - a common issue for developing young blue-liners - but the way they've continued to learn and find their place within the Capitals' framework gave him little reason to believe they couldn't handle the increased role.
"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."
As Boudreau's trust in both Carlson and Alzner continues to grow, evidenced by his willingness to put them in high-pressure situations, so does their confidence.
"We've had three pretty tough assignments in a row with Pittsburgh, Montreal and [Tampa Bay] and we've done a pretty good job, I think," Alzner said. "We'll see how it is once the team does get a good night against us - hopefully it doesn't happen soon - but I have a good feeling that coach is still going to show that confidence in us."