MONTREAL — Karl Alzner had played through it all.
Broken limbs, illness, confidence peaks and valleys, and all the other bumps and bruises that come with starting 622 consecutive games in the world’s most challenging hockey league.
But nothing was harder for him to deal with than arriving at the rink before his Montreal Canadiens played their first game this season and finding out that he was being made a healthy scratch for the first time since establishing himself as a regular in the NHL at age 22.
We’re talking about a player who had averaged over 20 minutes a game through his first nine seasons with the Washington Capitals. A player who had lined up against the opposition’s best players night in, night out, established the NHL’s fourth-longest active ironman streak in the process, and come out shining enough to stimulate a bidding war for his services when he became an unrestricted free agent in the summer of 2017.
Alzner may have struggled tremendously in his first season with the Canadiens, but he’d never envisioned being parked in the press box just 82 games after he signed a five-year, $23.125-million contract to come to Montreal.
“The first two days were pretty tough to be honest with you,” he said after appearing in Montreal’s 3-2 win over the St. Louis Blues on Wednesday. “I was pretty down.”
Had Canadiens defenceman Victor Mete not been ailing with a suspected hand injury, Alzner likely would have been sitting for a sixth straight game.
Montreal jumped out of the gate with wins in three of its first five games and collected a point for getting to overtime in their season-opening loss to Toronto. The latest victory, a 7-3 stomping of the beleaguered Detroit Red Wings on Monday, wasn’t exactly going to open the door for Alzner make his debut.
But when he arrived at the Canadiens south-shore practice on Wednesday he was told he’d be taking Mete’s place.
The pre-game warmup revealed Alzner wasn’t just being eased into play; he was being placed on Montreal’s top defence pairing with Jeff Petry.
“That’s the role I feel comfortable in is trying to defend those top guys,” he said. “It kind of gets the extra juices flowing for me, so it was nice.”
Through two periods, Alzner had played the second-most minutes of any Canadien at even strength, notching a shot on net, two attempts total and a plus-1 rating. Montreal also controlled 62 per cent of the shot attempts with him on the ice.
“I was getting tired in the third,” he said.
Understandably so after a two-week stint on the sidelines.
But Alzner finished the game having made his mark with solid defensive play, quick processing and decision making, sturdy penalty killing and steady breakout passing, and he even managed to step outside his comfort zone to help the Canadiens maintain possession several times in the offensive zone.
“I thought Karl played well tonight,” said Canadiens coach Claude Julien. “He’s been waiting for a while and the thing is that nobody ever said that Karl Alzner didn’t play well in camp, didn’t have a great camp. What happened was that the six guys we had picked we thought had better camps and deserved to start, and the way things were going it was hard to put him in.”
It was undeniable.
Petry and Mete had the versatility and speed advantage over Alzner. Twenty-one-year-old Noah Juulsen had an excellent training camp and established himself as a must in Montreal’s lineup. And even if Jordie Benn and Xavier Ouellet had not shown up as the team’s best on any given night in exhibition, they started on a strong beat as a pair in the overtime loss to Toronto and have since proven to be very dependable.
Then there was Mike Reilly, who had an exceptional camp and has emerged out of nowhere as somewhat of a revelation.
On Wednesday the 25-year-old assisted on Montreal’s first goal and then notched his first as a Canadien since coming over in a trade from the Minnesota Wild at last year’s trade deadline. He had averaged just over 12 minutes a game with his previous team, but he’s played so well with his new one that Julien hasn’t been able to keep him off the ice.
“We’ve got some pretty good, young players here, and [I] had a tough year last year,” said the 30-year-old Alzner.
It’s why he didn’t have to guess as to what the reason was for him sitting out for the first five games of the season.
The reality is, Alzner might find himself on the sidelines again before long — with Julien saying Mete would have played Wednesday if the Canadiens had needed him to.
“I’m going to contribute whatever I can whether I’m playing or not,” Alzner said. “I know so many guys that I’ve played with in the past and guys here that have had to be out for way more than two games at a time, one game, five games, or whatever I ended up sitting out, and they’re fine. It’s just the first time that ever happened to me, so I was upset. But once you get over yourself, you just start enjoying being around the rink and adding whatever you can.”
It’s that type of attitude that allows a person to prevail in tough times, and we shouldn’t be surprised it’s the one Alzner has adopted given all he’s played through throughout his career.