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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.”

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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.”

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Burakovsky is back in for Game 6

Burakovsky is back in for Game 6

Coach Barry Trotz indicated that Andre Burakovsky’s benching wouldn’t last long.

And it didn’t.

The 23-year-old winger will return to the lineup on Monday night as the Caps look to stave off elimination in Game 6 of the Eastern Conference Final.

During the morning skate, Burakovsky skated on the third line with Lars Eller and Brett Connolly—a trio that’s enjoyed some success in the past.

It’s been a difficult postseason for Burakovsky, who has not recorded a point in six games. He missed 10 contests after suffering a hand injury in Game 2 of the first round that required minor surgery.

What he found out upon returning was this: coming back from injury in the regular season is hard...and it’s exponentially tougher in the playoffs.

“It’s definitely tough to jump in in the semifinal,” he said. “When you’re out, you just want to get in and help the team and do what you’re good at—score goals and produce.”

“What I realized is that it’s not that easy,” he added. “I really thought I could jump in and just play like I did before I got injured. 

But obviously it didn’t work out as well I thought it would.”  

Burakovsky also said that he’s planning to work with a sports psychologist this summer in an effort to maintain an even keel when things aren’t going as well as he would like. It’s a problem that he said he’s struggled with since his childhood.

Asked what he hopes to see from Burakovsky in Game 6, Coach Barry Trotz kept it simple: offense.

The Caps have scored just two goals in each of the last three games, with Evgeny Kuznetsov contributing 50-percent of that total.

“He’s a guy that’s given us some good offense all through his time here,” Trotz said of Burakovsky. “We think that he can add some of that.”

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5 keys for the Caps to win Game 6 and force a decisive Game 7 against the Lightning

5 keys for the Caps to win Game 6 and force a decisive Game 7 against the Lightning

The more you look at Monday's Game 6 between the Washington Capitals and the Tampa Bay Lightning, the more you realize this game is the most important game of Alex Ovechkin's career.

This is the first time Ovechkin and Co. have made it to the conference finals and it is the first time this postseason in which the Caps face elimination.

Here are the keys for the Caps to staving off elimination and forcing a Game 7:

1. Get off to a better start

It took Tampa Bay just 19 seconds to score in Game 5 and the score was 3-0 nothing before the Capitals really began to show any signs of life. They cannot allow the Lightning to jump all over them in the same way and take the crowd out of the game early.

With the game being in Washington, the Caps will have the crowd on their side. Use it.

The Caps have been at their best this series playing the trap, holding their own blue line and countering against Tampa Bay's aggressive defensemen leading to odd-man breaks. That's a hard gameplan to run if you're playing from behind. Scoring first would go a long way for Washington.

2. Stay out of the penalty box

Washington has given up six power play goals to Tampa Bay on just 15 opportunities in this series. That means the Lightning's power play is producing at a blistering rate of 40-percent. That's an insanely good power play rate and that may be putting it mildly.

So far, the penalty kill has had no answer for how to shut down a Tampa Bay unit that features Steven Stamkos and Nikita Kucherov setting up for one-timers and being quarterbacked by Victor Hedman. That's a formidable cast.

If you can't beat it, then there's only one solution: Stay out of the box.

Despite everything that went wrong in Game 5, the one thing the Caps did right was not give up many penalties. They took only one on the night and even that one was avoidable as Brett Connolly got caught holding Brayden Point trying to get around him to get the puck.

3. Win the top line matchup

The Lightning have found success matching their fourth line against Ovechkin. Of his six points this series, only two of them (one goal, one assist) have come at 5-on-5. That's not good enough.

It's gut check time. The Caps need their best players to be at their best and that means Ovechkin has to win the matchup against Chris Kunitz, Cedric Paquette and Ryan Callahan. In Game 5, Tampa Bay's fourth line actually outscored Ovechkin's line in 5-on-5 play 2-0.

Washington will not win this game if the fourth line outscores Ovechkin's line. It's just that simple.

4. Take advantage of the power play opportunities

The Caps scored at least one power play goal in Game 1 and Game 2, both wins. They have not scored any since and have lost all three games since. They scored on three of seven opportunities in the first two games and zero of seven opportunities in the last three.

Not a coincidence.

Granted, they did not draw any penalties in Game 5, but it seems unlikely the Lightning will stay out of the box for another sixty minutes. At some point, they will take a penalty and when they do, Washington must take advantage.

5. Win the goalie matchup

Not much attention has been paid to Braden Holtby in this series. The Caps are not facing elimination because they have been getting bad goaltending, but when the Lightning needed Andrei Vasilevskiy to steal them a win and up his game to get them back into the series, he responded.

Vasilevskiy has been brilliant the last three games as he has turned aside 100 of the 106 shots he has faced for a .943 save percentage. For the series, Holtby has a save percentage of only .883.

Again, Washington is not down 3-2 in the series because of goaltending. Holtby has faced far fewer shots than Vasilevskiy and has been just about the only thing that has worked against Tampa Bay's lethal power play.

But as one of the team's top players, the Caps need Holtby to step up the way Vasilevskiy has. Game 6 will be about winning by any means necessary. If that means they need a hat trick from Ovechkin so be it. If that means they need Holtby to steal it for them, so be it.

Holtby has to be just as good as Vasilevskiy in Game 6, if not better, for Washington to come out on top.

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