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Without Carlson, Alzner has reached another level

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Without Carlson, Alzner has reached another level

Capitals assistant coach Todd Reirden took a calculated risk last season when, upon his arrival, he immediately separated the Caps’ top defensive pairing of John Carlson and Karl Alzner, matching veteran Brooks Orpik with Carlson, and Matt Niskanen with Alzner.

A little more than a year later, Carlson is leading all Caps defensemen in goals (4), assists (15) and ice time (24:22), while Alzner is quietly gaining consideration for Team Canada for the 2016 World Cup of Hockey.

“Sometimes you get too comfortable,” said Alzner, who on Saturday played in his 401st consecutive game for the Caps. “Me and Carly were comfortable going out there and playing good, but not always getting to that next level.

“Now that we’ve switched things up, we both seem to have gotten to another level. Nisky and Orpy have helped both of our games.”

In the case of Alzner, there have been two subtle yet significant changes to his game this season. He is jumping into the rush far more often, sometimes even creating plays from below the offensive goal line. And he is playing a stronger physical game, especially along the walls, where has delivered dozens of glass-rattling body checks.

“He’s added a little more offense to his game,” Capitals coach Barry Trotz said. “I think his details on defending and game management is outstanding, and I think he’s playing with a little more edge. He’s got guys that are top-level hockey players getting upset with how hard he‘s playing them, and that’s a good sign for us.”

RELATED: Trotz '100 percent sure' referees got it wrong

Last season Alzner set a career high in goals with five and matched his career high in points with 21. Through 25 games this season Alzner is on pace for seven goals and 27 points.

“Jumping up in the rush was something I had to talk myself into,” Alzner said. “I’m not stupid. I know when to jump in most of the time and I know when it’s time to say, ‘OK, nothing’s happening and come back.’ I may not be the fastest guy, but I know I’ve got enough to get back. That was something I had to tell myself.”

While Caps fans might find it unusual to see Alzner creating offense from below the hash marks, they may be equally surprised to see him crushing bodies along the boards.

Alzner’s 38 hits this season (1.5 per game) have him on pace to finish with the exact number of hits he had last season, when he set a career high with 120, well above his previous average of 82 hits.

 “I’ve never been a physical player my entire life and I try to learn from other guys,” Alzner said. “Brooks (Orpik) is the best example for me, seeing when he decides to go stick on puck and when he decides to go full body.

“I mean, I’m not going to be crushing guys through the middle of the ice, but I’m going to try to finish in the corner and I think that’s something that can really take my game to another level because it’s been kind of standing still for a little bit.”

Reirden hinted that someday in the future Carlson and Alzner may be reunited as a top pairing and he’s encouraged that by then, both players will be playing at an even higher level.

“It’s been a little over a year working with (Alzner) and to see the amount of growth in him is pretty remarkable, actually,” Reirden said. “It goes into him trying to re-develop himself as a player.

“He’s extremely coachable. Some players don’t accept information quite as easily. He’s tried every possible thing that I’ve thrown at him and he seems to continue to grow right in front of our eyes.

“With the confidence he’s playing with now, he’s probably the guy, along with Nate Schmidt, who has really stepped up his game with Brooks Orpik being out. I’ve really liked his physical play and his ability to add offensively. He’s also starting to take on a bit of a leadership role.”

MORE CAPITALS: Caps lose to Jets on disputed OT goal

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Game 58: Capitals at Blackhawks Date, Time, How to Watch, Game Thread

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USA TODAY Sports

Game 58: Capitals at Blackhawks Date, Time, How to Watch, Game Thread

What: Washington Capitals vs. Chicago Blackhawks

Where: United Center, Chicago, Ill.

When: 8:30 p.m. ET

How to Watch: Capitals-Blackhawks will be broadcast on NBC Sports Washington (Channel Finder)

Live Stream: You can watch the Capitals-Blackhawks game on NBC Sports Washington's live stream page.

You can also stream the game online with no cable TV subscription on fuboTV (try for free!).

WHEN IS THE CAPITALS-BLACKHAWKS GAME?

The Capitals (33-17-7) take on the Blackhawks (24-26-8) Saturday, February 17 at 8:30 p.m. ET in Chicago.

WHAT CHANNEL IS THE CAPITALS-BLACKHAWKS GAME ON?

The Capitals-Blackhawks game will be broadcast on NBC Sports Washington. Coverage kicks off with Capitals FaceOff at 7:30 p.m. followed by Caps GameTime at 8:00 p.m. Stay with NBC Sports Washington for Caps Extra following the game, Caps Overtime at 11:30 p.m. and Caps in 30 at 12:30 a.m. for all your postgame coverage. (NBC Sports Washington channel Finder)

7:30 p.m. — Caps FaceOff
8:00 p.m. — Caps GameTime
8:30 p.m. — Capitals at Blackhawks
11:00 p.m. — Caps Extra
11:30 p.m. — Caps Overtime
12:30 a.m. — Caps in 30

WHAT ARE THE PROJECTED LINES FOR THE CAPITALS-BLACKHAWKS GAME?

Here are the projected lines for the Caps-Blackhawks game:

Forwards
Alex Ovechkin - Nicklas Backstrom - Tom Wilson
Alex Chiasson - Evgeny Kuznetsov - T.J. Oshie
Brett Connolly - Lars Eller - Andre Burakovsky
Chandler Stephenson - Jay Beagle - Devante Smith-Pelly

Defensemen
Christian Djoos - John Carlson
Dmitry Orlov - Matt Niskanen
Brooks Orpik - Madison Bowey

Braden Holtby starts with Philipp Grubauer as backup

Scratches: Jakub Vrana, Taylor Chorney

WHERE CAN I STREAM THE CAPITALS-BLACKHAWKS GAME?

The Capitals-Blackhawks game, as well as Caps GameTime and Caps Extra, is available to stream live here through NBC Sports Washington's live stream page and is available to authenticated NBC Sports Washington subscribers on desktops, tablets, mobile devices and connected TVs anywhere in the United States.

The game is also available to stream, along with all the pregame and postgame shows, on fuboTV (try for free).

CAPITALS-BLACKHAWKS OPEN THREAD

Use the comment section below to discuss the game action with other Capitals fans. 

For all the latest Caps coverage, follow Capitals Insider Tarik El-Bashir, Capitals correspondent JJ Regan and the NBC Sports Capitals account on Twitter. Be sure check out our Capitals page and NBC Sports Washington's Facebook page.

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NHL Awards tracker: How Malkin is helping Ovechkin's case for the Hart

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NHL Awards tracker: How Malkin is helping Ovechkin's case for the Hart

A week by week look at where the race for the major individual NHL awards stands and which Caps could be in contention.

The Pittsburgh Penguins have been red-hot as of late and so has Evgeni Malkin. In his last nine games, Malkin has tallied a whopping 11 goals and 17 points. His current run has some people talking about him contending for the Hart Trophy as the league's most valuable player.

But if you want to talk about Malkin for the Hart, you have to talk about Alex Ovechkin as well.

Malkin has 66 points this season, Ovechkin has 65. Even with his impressive goal run of late, Malkin still trails Ovechkin in the goal-scoring race 34-32. What's more, Ovechkin's Capitals still hold a three-point lead over Pittsburgh with two games in hand in the Metropolitan Division.

Granted all of this could change by next week. Perhaps Malkin will pass Ovechkin in goals or the Penguins will pass the Caps in the standings which will change the conversation. Until then, however, there's no way to push Malkin's Hart candidacy without thinking about Ovechkin. What he is doing at the age of 32 with a Capitals team in which no one really knew what to expect is more impressive than what the 31-year-old Malkin is doing with players like Phil Kessel and Sidney Crosby with the defending Stanley Cup champions.

Here are the Caps' hopefuls for awards this season:

John Carlson

In contention for: Norris

Carlson is third among all defensemen with 45 points, but his case goes beyond the numbers. With two rookies on the blue line and an injury to Matt Niskanen, the Caps have asked a lot of Carlson this season and he has always been up to the task.

SEE THIS WEEK'S 2018 NHL AWARDS TRACKER HERE

Braden Holtby

In contention for: Vezina

Holtby is on pace to be a 40-win goalie for the fourth consecutive season. He would be the first goalie in NHL history to accomplish that feat.

Alex Ovechkin

In contention for: Hart

If Malkin is a Hart candidate, so is Ovechkin who has done more with less in Washington this season.

Barry Trotz

In contention for: Jack Adams

The Caps still hold a three-point lead in the Metropolitan Division despite having two rookies on the blue line, dealing with more injuries than they have seen in years and down offensive years for some of its top players. Trotz deserves a lot of credit for that.

Check out who the top candidates are for the league's major individual awards in this week's 2018 NHL Awards Tracker!