ARLINGTON, Va. -- One was the Washington Capitals’ first-round pick in the 2007 NHL Draft, the other a Capitals’ first-round pick in 2008.
One is a left-handed stay-at-home defenseman, the other a right-handed offensive-minded defenseman.
Both are key cogs on a Capitals team that is seeking its fifth Southeast Division title in six years.
Karl Alzner and John Carlson have seemingly been joined at the hip since they started playing together with the Hershey Bears of the American Hockey League in 2009. They have been roommates on the road, fixtures on the Capitals’ blue line and bearers of the nickname "Carlzner."
But after starting the 2012-13 season with three straight losses, including a 4-1 defeat to the Montreal Canadiens on Jan. 24 in which Alzner and Carlson were on the ice for all four goals against, first-year Capitals coach Adam Oates decided to split the longtime partners.
"[Carlson] and I were going through a rough patch," Alzner said. "It didn’t matter what we did or how hard we were playing, pucks were just going in against us. It was just one of those things where, let’s change it up and see if it changes our luck, and go figure that we won a couple of games. He started to turn it around, I started to turn it around, and it was just one of those things where we switched it up and it’s worked."
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Capitals goalie Braden Holtby said "it was kind of strange" to see Alzner and Carlson taking separate shifts, and Oates acknowledged "they didn’t like it at first."
Nearly three months later, though, the Southeast Division-leading Capitals are on a season-high seven-game winning streak and enter a game Tuesday night against the Toronto Maple Leafs 11-1-1 in their past 13 games.
While much of the credit for the Capitals’ turnaround has gone to Alex Ovechkin, Nicklas Backstrom and the NHL’s No. 1-rated power play, the improved play of Washington’s defensemen should not be overlooked.
Alzner will be paired with Mike Green on Tuesday for a 12th straight game, and Carlson is expected to skate alongside John Erskine. First-year Capitals Jack Hillen and Steven Oleksy round out the top six.
"Obviously I like playing with [Alzner] and I loved it, and we’ve done it for a while but we don’t make those decisions," said Carlson, who leads all Capitals defensemen with 20 points this season and is second on the team with an average of 23 minutes, 21 seconds per game. "We had that trust playing with each other for so long, but we’ve got six great defensemen and whoever I play with -- it’s been [Erskine and Hillen] for the majority of the year -- I think that we’ve created good chemistry and Karl is the same way.
"It’s our job, and when the coach tells you that you’re not going to play with him that’s the end of it. It’s not debatable, that’s what we’ve done, and I think that we’ve done a great job this year and we’ve played really well."
Alzner and Carlson are the only two Capitals to play every game since Game 7 of the 2010 Eastern Conference Quarterfinals, and that durability has been especially valuable to a team that has been without Green for 83 of the past 144 regular-season games.
In total, Alzner and Carlson have each played 232 consecutive games (Stanley Cup Playoffs included), but Oates suggested that splitting the two had to do with maintaining a balance among the pairings when other defensemen are sidelined, or worse, should one of them eventually miss time himself.
"Part of our philosophy was, ‘Well what if one of you gets hurt? Is the other guy going to not play?’ Like, if he’s hurt, I can’t play then -- I play with him," Oates said.
"The point was we switched it up because maybe we’re looking to make two good pairs, maybe you complemented each other, but someone else will too. That doesn’t mean that they can’t be partners. You’re always looking for chemistry, always looking for little things, and injuries play a big factor in that."
For the first time in three years, injuries have not been a concern in the final month of the regular-season for Green, who returned from a groin injury March 21 and has eight goals and 10 points in the 13 games since.
"Just getting to watch him a little bit closer on the ice and in practice, it’s just amazing to see what he does out there," Alzner said.
"Obviously he’s great at moving the puck out of our zone, he takes a lot of stress off of me of having to break the puck out clean because he always does it, so that’s really nice. He’s easy to play with and it’s pretty clear to me why he’s as highly touted as he is."