BOSTON — When talking about the best defensive defensemen in the NHL, players such as the New York Rangers’ Dan Girardi and San Jose Sharks’ Douglas Murray dominate the conversation.
Karl Alzner? Crickets.
Few consider the Washington Capitals defenseman among the top shutdown players n the league, and he wants to keep his play as quiet as possible.
“I like it that way,” Alzner said. “The type of game that I play, I don’t want anyone to notice. I just want to go out and do my job.”
His game is to shut down opposing teams’ top lines, something he thrived on during the Capitals’ Eastern Conference quarterfinal series against the Boston Bruins.
“All season, he’s been solid defensively. He has to play against their best players every night,” coach Dale Hunter said. “But he’s a great defensive defensemen. He’s one of the tops in the league and a great shutdown guy and he does it quietly, so if you don’t notice him, that’s a good thing.”
That’s Alzner’s feeling, too: Let Alex Ovechkin and other stars soak up the attention and make things easier by not keying on him.
“It’s our job as defensive guys, you’re not in the limelight,” Bruins defenseman Greg Zanon said. “You kind of do the dirty work and you go with it. It’s what got you to the league, and you just stick with it and you keep going. You have fun with it.”
Alzner has plenty of fun and would even more so with some more toughness in front of the net and grit in the corners, he said. Still, as he draws praise from teammates, the 23-year-old is hard on himself when he makes mistakes, even when most don’t notice.
A short memory is necessary after mistakes, but a look at the videotape reveals small cracks in his game.
“A lot of times you ask yourself, ‘Why the heck did you do that? What’s the point?’ For me, the plays that really bug me are the ones where I pass the puck to someone where I shouldn’t pass it or ice the puck when I shouldn’t ice it,” Alzner said. “The ones where it’s one-on-one down low, a lot of times I make a mistake or players make a nice move. It’s a little bit easier to let go of those, but the ones where you actually have time and all you have to do is look, those ones bug me.”
It even bugs Alzner when opposing teams’ top players do well when he’s not on the ice. He keeps a mental tally of scoring chances and insists: “You can always play better.”
Alzner put up a career high in points this season with 17, on a goal and 16 assists. But that goes unnoticed because his shut-down role is so important.
“Karl is just steady. Not flashy, he just pokes pucks and he gets body position,” forward Brooks Laich said. “There aren’t many times you see him get beat.”
But being a dependable defenseman who doesn’t put up numbers won’t get Alzner a Gillette ad or anything. Without some offensive output, it might mean he doesn’t make an All-Star team until he raises his profile.
That could come with a 30-point season, or maybe even 20, and Alzner has joked that he thinks about how dangerous his game would be if he had a better shot.
“It’d be something that I’d love to do,”Alzner said. “But I love playing defense a heck of a lot more than I love scoring goals and putting up points.”