By Chris Gordon
Photo: Drew Hallowell
On Thursday, the Capitals gathered at Kettler Capitals Iceplex to discuss another season that ended prematurely. The players were more visibly emotional than in years past at the annual end-of-season confab with reporters, promising Stanley Cups to the fans and articulating their frustrations with plenty of “failures” and “sucks.”
The news, however, came in the form of injuries revealed publicly for the first time. Karl Alzner’s ailment was at the forefront of everyone’s mind. Referred to by Braden Holtby as the team’s most important player, Alzner missed most of the final game with a torn groin. He played just two shifts early in the second period before being pulled from the game.
“I know that the first four games of the series, I was just out there filling a spot, Alzner said. “I was out there and I was not hurting the team I don’t think, but I also wasn’t helping in winning in the game. That’s when you know you can still do things, but once I’m getting beat up the ice trying to chase a guy and not able to at least stay in battles, that’s when you know it’s time.”
He watched the Capitals penalty kill, a unit he normally plays big minutes on, give up two power play goals in 33 seconds after Brooks Orpik took a double minor for high-sticking. Later, Alzner sat helpless on the bench as the Penguins won it in overtime.
“That was probably the hardest period of hockey that I’ve ever been a part of,” Alzner said of the end of the game. “As a player it’s hard to watch the game. It’s easy to watch on TV or watch from the stands and say ‘Oh, I would do this different or I would do that different.’ But it was hard to see that we had done such a good job on the PK the whole playoffs and then for them to finally get two goals, and to be watching it from the bench, that part was hard for me to see.”
Alzner first injured himself in the Flyers series. Alzner toughed it out for the rest of the first round, which Capitals head coach Barry Trotz referred to as a “war.”
“We kind of calmed it down enough to play at the beginning of the series and I felt really good actually for Game 5,” Alzner said of the second round. “I got a cortisone shot and those things are amazing. So I felt great for Game 5 and I felt the best I had felt for Game 6 and was excited about the game.”
But before Alzner completed the first period, he knew he was in trouble.
“I just felt it pop,” Alzner said. He added that the injury had nothing to do with Sidney Crosby’s slash across his foot, which Alzner said he didn’t even realize had happened until he was asked about it later.
“He laid it all out there,” John Carlson said of Alzner, his longtime teammate. “You can’t really ask much more of a guy. It hurts that much more seeing him end the season like that.”
Alzner’s loss dimmed the Capitals’ chances in Game Six, despite the three goal comeback. With Alzner in, the penalty kill was 38-for-40 in the postseason. Without him, they allowed goals on consecutive penalties.
“It was tough on him,” Jay Beagle said. “I’ll never forget the look on his face after that game.”
Alzner, who may need offseason surgery, formed the top defense pair with Matt Niskanen this season. Throughout the year, they were called on for big minutes and tough assignments. With Alzner missing much of Game Six, Niskanen skated nearly 31 minutes, more than Pittsburgh’s ice-hogging D-man Kris Letang, while Carlson played a game-high 33 minutes and 12 seconds. Alzner said there was little chance he could have played in a potential Game Seven.
“I shared a ride with him once we got back and it was killing him,” Niskanen said of the team’s trip back to Dulles with Alzner after being eliminated. “He said it was more frustrating than playing and losing a game because he couldn’t do anything to help. Karl was a huge, important player for us this year. What a year he had. That had to just eat away at him. I know it did. The guy cares more than anything. He wants to be a contributor, but he physically couldn’t do it. There was nothing you could do. He just physically couldn’t play.”
Other Capitals were also playing hurt in the postseason. Marcus Johansson was a member of the walking wounded, but he declined to say what his ailment was. Whatever it is, Johansson said it will prevent him from playing for Sweden in this year’s World Championships, though Andre Burakovsky might make the team instead.
Orpik was also playing hurt with the same injury that kept him out for half the regular season: a cracked femur.
“It was something I tried to play through at the beginning and wound up making a lot worse,” Orpik said. The injury happened when he blocked a shot against Columbus on October 30 and only grew as an issue. “Every time I skated on it, it just got progressively worse and worse.”
“That was pretty frustrating,” Orpik added. “It was something I thought was a day-to-day thing thing. It’s hopefully something that will heal up after the season here.”
More recently, Orpik suffered a concussion and neck injury when he was checked hard in the boards by the Flyers’ Ryan White in the first round. That caused him to miss three games.
“Anytime you’re out, no matter who much time it is, you feel like you’re letting a lot of people down,” Orpik said. “I take a lot of pride in taking care of my body. Sometimes there’s stuff that’s unavoidable that you just have to deal with.”
Switching back to regular season injuries, Beagle said he returned from his broken hand with limited grip strength in his paw.
“I didn’t feel like I was 100 percent coming back,” Beagle said “It took me a little bit to find a groove again.”
Alzner’s injury burdens did not start in the playoffs. At one point, Alzner broke his thumb, strained his oblique, and pulled his hip flexor in about in about a week’s. Remarkably, he still managed to finish the season without missing time. Alzner has played 458 consecutive regular-season games, a franchise record.
“It all happened in four games,” Alzner said of his mid-season injuries. “It was one of those things where one thing goes and then everything goes and that was a hard time to play too, but those are all things you can get through. You know, I don’t have to skate with my thumb.”
Finally, the mysterious affliction that kept Alex Ovechkin out of the All-Star game was a lower back injury, according to the Capitals’ captain. He said it healed before the playoffs.
“Right now, it’s gone,” Ovechkin said. “The trainers do a great job to keep me safe and keep me healthy.”
No other Capitals admitted to playing hurt. Trotz also declined to divulge specifics, though he made clear the Capitals were beat up from a long regular-season and two brutally physical playoff series.
“A lot of guys had a lot of different things,” Trotz said. “Obviously a lot of groins, lot of backs, lot of knees and arms, and you name it. It’s a triage. It really is.”
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