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Karl Alzner: Iron Man

Karl Alzner will play in his 541st consecutive regular season game on Thursday

by Hugo Fontaine, translated by Steven Nechay @CanadiensMTL / canadiens.com

MONTREAL -- If you're curious what Karl Alzner brings to the Canadiens lineup, chances are you'll have plenty of opportunities to find out this season.

With so many new pieces on the Habs' back end, Alzner adds some stability to the blue line with his plus-61 differential, and the 20-plus minutes of ice time he's been averaging per night since making his full-time NHL debut in 2010-11.

More precisely, it was on October 8, 2010, that the Burnaby, BC native played the first of his now-540-consecutive games with the Washington Capitals. Not bad for someone who was originally called up and sent down 13 times when he went first pro in 2008-09.

"When I think about it, it's pretty cool. It's not easy to do. I definitely don't shy away from the things that can hurt you," admitted the Capitals' former fifth-overall pick from 2007. "I guess it's a nod to the training, but also luck -- that's the main thing. I've been extremely fortunate, and while it's a nice pat on the back, [that streak] is just a number, in my opinion."

In Washington, Alzner was a key defensive stalwart on an otherwise offensive-minded squad, allowing sharpshooters like Alexander Ovechkin, Evgeny Kuznetsov, Nicklas Backstrom, and T.J. Oshie to get deep behind enemy lines without having to worry about the counter-attack.

But last April, after already having played injured, a blocked shot attempt gone awry forced Alzner to watch a postseason game from the press box. It wasn't the first time he sacrificed his body for the team, but it was the first time the consequences left him on the outside looking in.

"It was weird not being in there. I didn't like it at all. No one likes to watch a game, because you have no control over what's happening on the ice," remembered Alzner, who fractured his hand during Game 2 of the Capitals-Maple Leafs series. "It wasn't a whole lot of fun. It's one thing to get injured during the season, but to be sidelined during the most important time of the year is brutal.

"A silver lining is that the regular season streak is still going, and that's kind of nice, but the only thing that matters is playing and winning games in the playoffs."

Consecutive games played as of October 3, 2017
Doug Jarvis 964
Garry Unger 914
Steve Larmer 884
Andrew Cogliano 786*
Craig Ramsay 776
Jay Bouwmeester 737
Henrik Sedin 679
Keith Yandle 633*
Andy Hebenton 630
Patrick Marleau 624*
Phil Kessel 610*
Johnny Wilson 580
Billy Harris 576
Mark Recchi 570
Danny Grant 566
Alex Delvecchio 548
Brendan Morrison 542
Karl Alzner 540*
Craig MacTavish 519
Brad Boyes 513
* Active streak

In 2016, Alzner soldiered on through the postseason despite a nagging groin injury, but in 2017 he wasn't even given the option.

"When the doctors told me I couldn't play, it was frustrating because I knew I could," insisted the 29-year-old rearguard, who eventually returned for Game 3 of Round 2 against the Penguins. "You can always find a way to play. I just taped my knob up a little bit thicker. You can do so much stuff with freezing, that you don't even feel it. The only worry is when you could do further damage."

In addition to his fractured hand and groin injuries, Alzner has also dealt with a broken finger, a banged up hip flexor, and a seriously-elongated oblique muscle. But it's actually the flu bug that has given him the worst headaches.

Nothing as bad as when former Habs forward Mark Recchi saw a 570-game streak shelved due to pneumonia in December 1998, of course, but Alzner can nevertheless recall the time he wondered if he would ever be able to get out of bed.

"I remember one of my toughest games to get up for was in Chicago. I got sick in the middle of the night, at around 2:00 a.m., and couldn't hold anything down. We had an 11:30 a.m. start the next day, and I just forced myself to get right back into it," described the 6-foot-3 blue-liner, who played 22 shifts totalling 18:13 of ice time on that February night in 2016. "At the time, we were the two top teams in the League, and I couldn't miss such a big game. It happens, and it's up to you to decide what you do.

"I don't lead by scoring goals and that kind of stuff. I try to lead by example with heart, and that's the only way I can handle that."

On Thursday in Buffalo, Alzner will make his Canadiens debut while suiting up for a 541st-consecutive game. In NHL history, only two other defenseman have gone on for more: Jay Bouwmeester (737) and Keith Yandle (633).

Neither boasted a reputation for laying it all on the line quite like Alzner, however.

After all, the former Capitals D-man blocked 162 shots and dished out 105 hits in 2016-17, far surpassing his sturdy counterparts at 111 and 67, respectively, for Bouwmeester, and 76 and 28 for Yandle.

"That's what I'm here for. It's my job, and if I'm not doing that, I'm not doing my job. It's what I have to do, and I'm okay with that. It's a bit of a niche -- it's something that not a lot of guys enjoy doing, because everyone prefers getting their hands in on offense," acknowledged Alzner. "But I take pride in seeing someone skating to the bench frustrated. That's what I do -- I try to protect the goalie and the team any way I can."

On the eve of his 10th NHL season, Alzner is trying not to give his ironman streak too much thought.

In fact, admittedly superstitious by nature, the 217-pounder prefers to bolster his good fortune with some reverse jinxing.

"Every year I tell myself there's no way it can continue, but then I find a way to get lucky. I've literally told my wife, 'I don't think it's going to keep going,'" concluded Alzner with a laugh. "But then when you're back around the guys, and you get going again at the rink, you find a way. There's no other way to put it."

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