WASHINGTON — Karl Alzner said on Friday that his return to Washington to play against the only other team he’s ever played for in the NHL is “just going to be another game.”
As much as he’d like to treat Saturday’s game that way, he acknowledged that will be a hard thing to do.
Alzner was drafted fifth overall by the hometown Capitals in 2007, and he won two Calder Cups with the team’s AHL affiliate in Hershey, Pa., before graduating to become a mainstay on the Washington blue line for seven seasons.
Over that time the Capitals were a force to be reckoned with; a perennial Presidents’ Trophy winner and a consistent threat to win the Stanley Cup. And Alzner was a big part of that, serving as a member of a longstanding core of players that largely still remains intact.
On Friday, as Alzner stood at the stall he had regularly used during Capitals prospect camps early in his career, he contemplated what it will be like to play against Nicklas Backstrom, against former defence partner John Carlson, against best friend Jay Beagle.
And he definitely considered what it might be like to defend against Alex Ovechkin.
“Ovechkin texted me last night and said, ‘Don’t block any of my shots,’” said Alzner with a laugh.
It’s doubtful he’ll oblige.
For a defenceman whose main goal is to scathe through a game relatively unnoticed, Alzner will often stand out by jumping in front of a puck most guys would turn away from. He did it on Thursday night, saving a sure goal that came off Buffalo Sabres forward Sam Reinhart’s stick on a first-period power play, keeping the score at 0-0 at a critical juncture of a game the Canadiens ended up winning 3-2 in a shootout. He’ll do it again and again, even if the shot is coming off a lethal shooter’s stick like Ovechkin’s.
It’s one of the primary reasons the Canadiens jumped to the front of the line to sign Alzner as an unrestricted free agent this past summer. But it’s certainly not the only one that saw them decide to pay him $23.1 million over the next five seasons.
“Defensively, he’s basically smarter than everyone else on the ice,” said Canadiens forward Brendan Gallagher on Friday. “His stick’s always in the right place. He’s always got a good gap. I know from playing against him you’re never going to have time and space. It makes it tough. And from Day 1 at camp and in practice you realize quickly he’s just not going to make a mistake in terms of positioning or his read on the play. That goes a long way when you’re trying to defend.”
Alzner estimates that his game will reveal itself over the next month as he becomes more comfortable with transitioning from Washington’s system to the one Canadiens coach Claude Julien is implementing. He spent the better amount of his time with the Capitals covering players man-to-man, but in Montreal he’s being asked to play zone defence.
“The difference is that there’s a lot of trading off,” Alzner said. “You have your zone on the ice, your area of the ice that you protect, and then somebody else comes in takes over once you move out. So I think the hard part is to transition from when you do need to all go in and when you don’t.”
It’s a process that will be ironed out with experience and one that should lead him to rely on his instincts more. It’s a bit of a blessing in disguise that Alzner’s in the early stages of it because it might distract him from all that comes with playing against your former team for the first time.
He acknowledged he’d be lying if he said he wasn’t thinking about the matchup and the feelings that come with being back in such familiar territory this soon after signing elsewhere.
As Alzner stood and held court with local reporters who had voted him the most agreeable and quote-worthy player to deal with in 2016, he exhibited a certain comfort he hasn’t quite yet found in Montreal.
Alzner then talked about texting some of his old teammates and being reluctant to pull any of them away from their families at this early juncture of the season.
“This being the first road trip, I want to hang out with my new teammates,” he said. “This is my chance to form some good bonds, and I don’t want to miss that.”
Alzner also considered the feelings and emotions that came to him by just walking into the Capitals practice facility. He talked nostalgically about his time in the organization, and he mentioned he’ll look to play some pre-game basketball on Saturday, which is a routine he stuck by religiously in a Capitals uniform.
He’s going to do whatever he can to just be comfortable with the situation.
“I don’t want to bring too much attention to it, especially in the room,” said Alzner. “There’s more important things than me coming back here to play. I’m just going to keep to myself and do what I normally do. If guys bring it up, then I’ll talk about it.
But I’m just going to do my best to not bring any attention on myself because I don’t really like that.”
But Alzner will receive a fair amount of attention on Saturday, and that’s just one of many reasons it won’t be like any other game he plays this season.