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Saturday, April 16, 2011
Young D-men thriving on big stage

By Scott Burnside
ESPN.com

ARLINGTON, Va. -- At some point, perhaps we'll see some of the baby-faced Washington Capitals display some nerves.

Maybe it will happen Sunday, when the team takes its 2-0 Eastern Conference quarterfinals series lead into Madison Square Garden.

Maybe it will be blown coverage or an ill-advised pass or an ill-timed pinch at the opposing team's blue line. Or maybe not.

While most of the attention in this series has been focused on 23-year-old rookie netminder Michal Neuvirth, who has allowed just one goal through 138:24 of playoff action, perhaps even more impressive is the continued play of young defense partners Karl Alzner and John Carlson.

John Carlson
John Carlson averaged 22:39 in regular-season ice time for the Capitals.

Throw in the strong play of rookie center Marcus Johansson, who set up the game-winner in Game 2 with a deft pass to Jason Chimera, and you get a sense of the kind of future this Caps team has.

But it has been the strong play of Alzner and Carlson in key situations throughout the season that has been doubly impressive.

"They were our best two on the ice last year in Game 7 against Montreal, and we thought they'd be great together all year," Washington coach Bruce Boudreau said.

He was right.

Not only did the two continue a strong playing relationship forged in the American Hockey League, but the close friends also quickly evolved into the Caps' top shut-down unit. When opposing teams' best players are on the ice, so are Alzner and Carlson. Power play? Sure. Penalty kill? You bet.

"It's not a singular thing," Boudreau said. "There are other teams that have had young guys that have stepped up, but it's fairly rare I would think. Not every team has two 21-year-olds in that position."

Boudreau points out that like Neuvirth, Alzner and Carlson have played a lot of big hockey despite their youth.

Alzner, 22, was the fifth overall pick in the 2007 draft. He played in 30 games in 2008-09 and 21 last season. He was called up for the Caps' season-ending Game 7 loss to Montreal in the first round last spring, but spent more time in Hershey with the Caps' successful AHL affiliate.

Alzner said he was just hoping to make the team out of training camp this past fall.

"But I never expected that I'd be thrown into this position right away," he told ESPN.com. "Obviously, I wanted to. It's my type of game, but it's a little strange to come into the NHL playoffs, which I grew up watching every little second of, and now actually being that guy that's going to be on the ice with some of the other team's top lines. It's kind of a weird feeling, but it's the spot that I wanted to be in, so I'm happy to be here."

Carlson, 21, was the 27th overall pick in the 2008 draft. He played 22 games for the Capitals late last season and was arguably their best player in the disappointing loss to Montreal, collecting four points and registering a plus-6 rating in seven games. He insisted he still gets nerves before playoff games even though he's an important cog in the Capitals' machinery.

"I think that's all still there. I don't think it'll change for a while," he said. "You're anxious and you're nervous, but it's fun and it's what you play for all year and you're ready for it."

Veteran defenseman Scott Hannan, who came over from Colorado earlier this season, has been impressed by the play of the young defense partners.

"They're smart players," he said. "The way they read the ice, the way they skate, that's the strength of them. They make the right plays. Breaking out of the zone, reads coming down on offense. That's not an easy thing to learn, to step in at a young age and to be able to take on top players mostly every night, to be able to read those plays and to come out on top most of the time.

"That's a tough thing to do and that's a credit to them and the way the play and the focus they have."

The two are also great friends and live in the same apartment complex. They travel to practice and games together every day. Baseball games, basketball games, dinners.

"We're doing it all," Alzner said.

Was there a little bit of jealousy when Carlson was called up last season and Alzner remained in Hershey?

"It's tough to say," Alzner said. "You want to be up there yourself, but at the same time, I know that John's an unbelievable player and I also know that the situation just made sense for him to be here. That's the kind of player they needed and he was a right-handed guy that was the piece they needed for this team.

"If anything, I was more happy than jealous for him because that's a guy that I've been playing with for the entire season and we're helping each other to get here. We talk about it all the time. We always say, 'Imagine the life it would be if we were both up together playing?' So it's more of excitement for him that he's doing so well. I like to think that maybe a little bit comes from trying to help him out on the ice, but the guy doesn't need a lot of help."

Scott Burnside covers the NHL for ESPN.com.