Over the past month or so, Marcus Johansson’s increased comfort level with everything -- the Capitals, the NHL, North America -- has been readily apparent on the ice. He’s earned greater ice time and more responsibility but perhaps no role has showcased how far the rookie center has come over the course of this season than his time skating next to Alex Ovechkin over the last few days with Nicklas Backstrom out of the lineup because of a fractured thumb.
Johansson may not be on a line with Ovechkin much once Backstrom returns, but in the meantime the older Swede is enjoying watching his fellow countryman do well.
“He’s doing real good, I like to see him play like this,” Backstrom said. “He was such a good player even when he first came here, you could see it, the way he’s fast and a good stick handler and I think the biggest difference is really him becoming more comfortable and gaining the confidence to trust himself in every situation.”
Over the course of the season, Johansson has gained the respect of his teammates and his coaches not only for his talent but for a toughness that perhaps they didn’t expect from the 20-year-old rookie.
“I think everyone really enjoys his competitive level, his toughness,” assistant coach Dean Evason said. “He’s played through some serious injuries, things that hurt pretty good - the blocked shot on is knee [against Florida] and he comes back and he played the rest of the game. I think that shows a lot to his teammates and they respect him for that.”
Asked about that shot by the Panthers’ Dmitry Kulikov, Johansson said he lost feeling in his leg after the puck hit him and that once he couldn’t feel the pain he didn’t think there was a good reason to not come back.
Johansson didn’t have much experience playing on the penalty kill in Sweden, but the Capitals’ coaches like how his speed fits in perfectly with the style of shorthanded play they’ve implemented this season with considerable success. In five of the last seven games they’ve used Johansson for more than two minutes on the penalty kill and he’s going to continue to get chances to make an impact while the Capitals are shorthanded.
“We were talking about it this morning,” Evason said. “Nicky’s done a lot of penalty killing for us this year and maybe down the stretch here and into the playoffs, we can relieve a little bit of Nicky’s minutes there because of the way that Marcus has been playing on the penalty kill.
“Early on in the year his stick wasn’t as good as it is now and we’ve talked to him constantly about getting stick on puck and stripping pucks,” Evason continued, “because he can get to people so quickly and to dislodge pucks and get to loose pucks and clear them. He’s come a long way in that area and he’s certainly becoming one of our top penalty killers.”
Although the added time on the penalty kill is something new for Johansson, he’s enjoyed the challenge of trying to frustrate opponents’ top scorers.
“I like it a lot. It’s a way to get in the game and to help the team kill a penalty feels very good,” Johansson said. “You try to think what’s hardest against, being on the power play and the things that you face. If you keep moving [as a penalty killer] it’s very hard to create something [on a power play].”
You’ll be able to read more on how Johansson’s development throughout the course of the season has been illustrated during Backstrom’s absence in the story for tomorrow’s hard-copy edition of the paper.