Alzner one of many Bears chipping in for Capitals

by Mike G. Morreale ||

Karl Alzner has skated in 30 games with Washington as a first-year pro in 2008-09.

While the third time wasn’t the charm for Washington Capitals defenseman Karl Alzner, the 20-year-old rookie no doubt will remain high on the organizational depth chart.

Just 11 days after being recalled from the Capitals’ American Hockey League affiliate, the Hershey Bears, for the third time this season, Alzner again was sent down. So it goes for the revolving door that has become the gateway connecting Washington and Hershey this season.

The Capitals are among the league leaders with more than 275 man-games lost to injury, and as a result have been forced to consistently dip into the reserve tank. The results not only have been encouraging, but are a big reason the team has remained atop the Southeast Division for virtually the entire season and is second in the Eastern Conference.

In fact, the experience given to many of Washington’s top prospects, including Alzner, could prove invaluable when the games become even more pressure packed in April. Don’t be surprised to see a few Hershey call-ups performing against the Pittsburgh Penguins on Sunday (12:30 p.m. ET) in the NHL on NBC Game of the Week.

"We have some depth in the organization so (losing players to injury) hasn’t really been the negative we all thought it would be," Capitals General Manager George McPhee told "In fact, it’s been an opportunity for (coach) Bruce (Boudreau) and management to get a look at some of the younger players. There are certain nights where those players provided energy where needed. I remember one stretch of four or five weeks where every day when we arrived at the office, Bruce wasn’t sure who was in or who was out or even what the line combinations or defense pairings would be."

All in a day’s work for the reigning Jack Adams Award-winning coach, who has had as many as five defensemen who started the season in Hershey playing for him in Washington. When Capitals goalie Michal Neuvirth earned his first start in a 5-1 victory against Tampa Bay on Feb. 14, he became the eighth Capital to make his NHL debut this season, joining Alzner, Jay Beagle, Sean Collins, Andrew Gordon, Oskar Osala, Tyler Sloan and Simeon Varlamov. Last season, the Caps had just three players make their NHL debuts (Nicklas Backstrom, Chris Bourque, Sami Lepisto).

"I think it’s great that so many young players are getting a shot this year," Capitals defenseman Mike Green said. "I think at one point eight or nine guys were out with injuries, but these young guys come up from Hershey and they play fantastic. It’s like we didn’t miss anybody. I think it’s good for our organization. It means that our team’s going to be good for a long time."

Still, it must be frustrating for players such as Alzner, who have been through that revolving door several times this season.

Keith Aucoin (11), Alex Giroux (center) and Sami Lepisto (37) have all skated in Washington this season.

"The first time I got sent down was pretty tough because I thought I had good chemistry with all the guys straight out of (training) camp, but was sent down for two months, so coming back was a little awkward, especially since it was my first game," Alzner said. "Other than that, it’s been good because all the defenders are close, so they make it an easy transition."

And what’s the biggest adjustment after returning to the big club following a brief stint in Hershey?

"Speed and awareness," Alzner said. "For instance, if I go into the corner and bump my man and then take my eyes off of him to look where the puck is, he’s going straight for the net and bada-bing, bada-boom, it’s going straight into the net. So you always have to be aware and sometimes I find myself a bit flat-footed those first few shifts coming back."

Green feels familiarity is the primary reason most players in Hershey get acclimated to the pro game in Washington so quickly.

"With them playing the same system in Hershey as we do up here, that really helps out," Green said. "For those guys that come up and play the way they did there, they have bright futures ahead of them."

Forward David Steckel agrees.

"We have a lot of depth on this team and when we had injuries in November and December for long stretches, guys came up and played well," Steckel said. "Whether it was a guy from Hershey or a player on this team just playing out of position, I think we came out of it quite well. In the long run, you need guys to be able to do that because you never know what’s going to happen, so we’re looking forward to the challenges."

Not only are most of the players familiar with Washington’s strategy, but with Boudreau’s tendencies.

"I think that’s been very helpful to Bruce and the players," McPhee said. "He knew a lot of the players when he first came in and he knows the players that are coming up and that’s been beneficial because he doesn’t need to spend a game or two to get to know a guy. Instead, he’s able to match him with the right players and put him in a situation in which he’s comfortable and capable of handling."