Photo credit: Jana Chytilova
Way back on November 26, 2008, Karl Alzner made his NHL debut for the Washington Capitals against the Atlanta Thrashers. Since then he’s played 198 career games in the NHL. Until this season, he’s had one coach, one defensive partner, and a virtual lock on the playoffs.
This season has been different. Bruce Boudreau was fired and Capitals legend Dale Hunter was brought in to lead the team. Hunter has installed a new system and switched up the defensive pairings — removing Alzner away from one of his best friends on the team, John Carlson. The playoffs are no longer a certainty. With fifteen games to go, the Capitals are three points out of the 8th and final playoff spot and may miss the post-season for the first time in five years.
On Saturday, I caught up with Alzner and we spoke about the new system, the switching of partners, and what Dale Hunter’s really like behind closed doors.
Ian Oland: What went wrong in the 5-0 loss to New Jersey on Friday night?
Karl Alzner: They scored on all the opportunities that they had. I don’t know what the scoring chances were, but I think they were fairly close, but we didn’t score on them and they did. We had some chances in that first period that would have gotten the game closer. It could have been 3-1, 3-2 at the end of the first, but that first power play changed everything. They got that momentum on us at the end of the period and we didn’t have enough to get back into it. And the special teams… they beat us again, we lost that battle that we’ve been doing that too much.
Ian Oland: Do you think that you guys have been improving lately on offense five-on-five? Is the team on the upswing?
Karl Alzner: Yeah. I think offensively and defensively. We’re getting out of the [defensive] zone a lot better. Neutral zone’s been better. Our gaps have been good. Our cycle’s been nice. We’re shooting a lot more. We’ve been outshooting a few teams. There’s a lot of pluses and that’s why we’ve won 3 of the last 4 games. I think it’s because of the way we lost those last games [against Ottawa and Carolina, 5-2 and 5-0 respectively], we just don’t want to look bad again. Which is something we don’t want to look like again.
Ian Oland: What are the differences between the defensive system Bruce ran while he was still here and the one Dale has installed?
Karl Alzner: Well, there’s a lot of similarities. The term that we use is in the locker room is that it’s a “Man-on-Man Layering System.” It’s where you play man-on-man and if someone loses a battle, you come back and help out. Or you stay near the battle and you’re still with your guy. That’s similar to what we were doing with Bruce. You know, it’s tough. You gotta read a lot of times what the other team is doing and go from there. Defensively though, it’s fairly similar. I think that we play more of a trap style too now in the neutral zone. So you wait for those turnovers, and try to force some turnovers and go from there. Other teams have been doing a good job of getting the puck in on us and not turning it over too much. I think that’s what’s been hurting us a little bit.
Ian Oland: Since you’ve been with the Capitals, the playoffs have been pretty much a given for you every season. This year there’s been a lot of adversity. How has the team responded from your point of view?
Karl Alzner: It’s definitely weird. It’s different because when you’re winning 8 of 10 games consistently throughout the entire season, you come to the rink and everything’s fun and happy and guys know that the next game’s going to come and you’re probably going to play good and you’re probably going to have a good chance to win. When you’re playing like this, you second guess yourself. Even in practice you’re not snapping the puck as good as you normally would. When you get on the ice, the confidence isn’t there as much. So that’s the main thing you notice the difference of. But hey, it’s nice to go through something like this, so you don’t get too comfortable. Whatever happens this year, next year you know this is what 82 games feels like and it’s not fun to go through a whole season always feeling like this.
Ian Oland: Has it been odd not being paired with your normal defense partner John Carlson and having different guys with you off and on this year?
Karl Alzner: Yeah. We had that stretch where we were changing up quite a bit. You know, it’s good and bad. It’s nice to get used to the other guys’ in the d-corps and play with them and see how it is. At the same time, when you have that chemistry, you want to keep going. It helps out a lot. But there’s not a whole lot you can do. You can’t go into [Dale's office] and say I wanna play with this guy and nobody else. So you gotta be prepared for whatever comes your way. I think we’ve done a pretty good job with it. We’ve had some tough games here and there, but that’s the way it works.
Ian Oland: From a Caps fan’s perspective, Dale was a very fiery former player. However, from what we’ve seen in his press conferences, he’s always very calm. What is he like in the locker room when the cameras aren’t around?
Karl Alzner: There’s times when he knows he needs to come into the locker room [during a game] and shake things up a little bit. But for the most part, he’s pretty calm and I think that’s important. When we look up and see our coach is calm still — not panicking and not worrying, it’s good. It kinda calms us down a little bit. But there’s times he’ll say, “Look! It’s your fault. You did that wrong.” And then you fix it. It keeps guys accountable and he’s doing a good job of that.
Ian Oland: On Friday the Caps Game Entertainment Crew premiered the first part of a series about you called “Building of a Capital.” So A.) how does that feel to have that done by the team and b) what’s it like — from your perspective — to have such a famous guy narrate it: Pat Sajak.
Karl Alzner: Yeah! I heard about that. I haven’t seen it yet, but my mom’s been talking about it to me quite a bit. It’s pretty neat that they did something like that. It gives you some insight on how things were for me growing up and what it took for me to get where I am. And yeah, pretty famous voice to listen to so it grabs people’s attention.