TORONTO - Life is pretty good right now for 20-year-old Karl Alzner.
The Washington Capitals blue-line has been decimated by injuries and Alzner is one of five rearguards who started the season in the American Hockey League, but have since been summoned up to the big club.
After picking up his first NHL point with an assist versus the New York Islanders on Thursday, Alzner bagged his first big-league goal and added another helper during Washington's 2-1 victory over the Toronto Maple Leafs on Saturday night.
"Last game I had a big weight lifted off my shoulders and today was the rest of the weight, so now I can just worry about playing well and helping the team," Alzner said.
The strong showings Alzner has turned in over his last two contests came of the heels of a conversation with Washington coach Bruce Boudreau, who felt the youngster was having some trouble taming his nerves initially.
"His fourth game was, arguably, really bad and we had a talk," Boudreau said. "His first three games, he was just, for such a highly touted kid, he's still a nervous guy and he's still a first-year player and he's only 20 years old.
"But we had a good talk after the fourth game and the fifth game and the sixth game. He's been really, really special."
That endorsement was reflected in Boudreau's decision to have Alzner on the ice during the final minute of Washington's win over the Leafs, as the Caps clung to a one-goal lead.
The affable Alzner joked his coach didn't have a lot of options in terms of who to trust in the game's dying seconds. That's because regular blue-liners like Mike Green, Tom Poti and Jeff Schultz are all sidelined with an assortment of ailments.
"I know they're kind of stuck with who to put out with everybody gone, but I'm happy they have a lot of faith in me and that's my game, to try to keep pucks out of the net," Alzner said.
The six-foot-two, 208-pound Alzner was selected fifth overall in 2007, one year before the Leafs took Luke Schenn with the same pick in the '08 draft. The two players are both projected to be rearguards who help their team most with stifling defence as opposed to posting big offensive numbers.
"Scoring goals is not going to be his forte, but he's going to be a great defender in this league for a long time," said Boudreau of Alzner.
Schenn and Alzner won a gold medal together with Team Canada at the 2008 World Junior Championship last January, with Alzner serving as team captain. It was the second gold medal for the Burnaby, B.C., native at that derby and he was also the Western Hockey League's player of the year last season while suiting up for the Calgary Hitmen.
Now, after a 20-game apprenticeship with the AHL's Hershey Bears to start the year, he's learning the ropes of the world's best hockey circuit one game at a time.
"Every game I'm figuring out how to play in this league a little bit more," he said. "My problem at the beginning was trying to play too safe and now I'm realizing I've done it for years before, I can handle the puck, I can pass the puck and I just have to remember I can do it and make sure I'm doing it when I'm on the ice".
Alzner isn't the only Washington defenceman adjusting to life in the NHL after beginning the season in Hershey. Sean Collins played his first NHL game against Toronto, while Sami Lepisto, Bryan Helmer and Tyler Sloan have also seen action on the Caps' back end.
"Obviously we want Mike Green and Tom Poti and Schultz and the rest of them back, but these guys come in and for the short period of time, their energy and adrenaline really carries them," said Boudreau, who's team has also been playing without sniper Alexander Semin since mid-November. "And they really listen to what I'm telling them."