TORONTO — Defenseman Karl Alzner missed the Washington Capitals’ morning skate on Monday, and Coach Barry Trotz said the reliable blue-liner is a “game-time decision” for tonight’s pivotal playoff contest. The team attributed Alzner’s absence to taking a “maintenance day,” and if Alzner doesn’t play in Game 3 between the Capitals and Maple Leafs, it will be his first game missed in seven years.
“I talked to the trainers this morning,” Trotz said. “He’s had a maintenance day; they just asked if he could be off today.”
Alzner owns the franchise record for consecutive games played with 540 consecutive regular-season games, and he’s also played in 59 straight playoff games. He had sports hernia surgery this summer after partially tearing a groin muscle in Washington’s last playoff game a year ago. Though Alzner didn’t miss a game during the regular season, the recovery from groin injuries is arduous, and it has occasionally hindered Alzner.
A physical, shutdown blue-liner, Alzner plays on the top pair and faced top competition from opposing forwards while recording three goals and 10 assists of his own. He also plays on the penalty kill, and his strength is clearing out the traffic in front of goaltender Braden Holtby.
If Alzner can’t play, Nate Schmidt will be in the lineup on a pairing with John Carlson. When the Capitals acquired defenseman Kevin Shattenkirk before the trade deadline to bolster the team’s defensive depth, Schmidt was pushed out of the lineup after playing in 53 games this season. Schmidt played sporadically down the stretch after Shattenkirk’s arrival, but in those seven relief appearances, his teammates were impressed.
Carlson was a late scratch against the Maple Leafs in the last regular-season meeting between the teams, and Schmidt found out he was playing roughly 20 minutes before puck drop. He scored a goal that night.
“He had a good year, a really good year,” defenseman Matt Niskanen said. “Then he kind of got bounced when Shattenkirk arrived. When he got a chance to go back in, I thought he did even better than he did before. I think everyone’s really confident in his abilities, and he should be, too.”
Said Holtby: “Those last few games, he looked extremely good. I mean, there was probably less pressure. He just went and played, which is good. That’s a good way to play. Obviously leading up to the trade deadline and stuff and rumors, that’s hard to play. So, he’s in a good spot, and I think our whole group is in a good spot right now. When he gets an opportunity, if he gets an opportunity, he’ll be ready.”
Schmidt admitted the addition of Shattenkirk was hard for him personally. While he understood it was a beneficial move for the team, he also went from playing consistently to out of the lineup entirely. When Washington had to play without Brooks Orpik in the second round of the playoffs last year because he was suspended, the team’s lack of defensive depth was exposed at times in the series loss to Pittsburgh, so General Manager Brian MacLellan shored that up by acquiring the top blue-liner available at the trade deadline in Shattenkirk.
With Schmidt as a seventh defenseman, the Capitals were confident they could withstand injury or suspension to their blue line in the postseason, something that will be tested Monday night at Air Canada Centre. Though he and Carlson haven’t played together much this season, they were paired for roughly half of last season. Schmidt is also the best skater in Washington’s defensive corps, which could be an asset against a speedy Toronto team.
“I think this is a good series for me,” Schmidt said. “They’re playing hard right now with a lot of speed to their game, and if I get in there, it should be a lot of fun.”