During the first line’s shifts early on in Saturday’s game against the Blue Jackets, it wasn’t Alex Ovechkin or Nicklas Backstrom that put on a show but Marcus Johansson. The young forward zipped around the ice, using his speed to catch the opponent unaware, helping to create chances and showing a rare willingness to shoot.
Johansson recorded four shots in the Capitals’ 4-1 win — including three in the first period, matching his total from the seven previous games — in the most assertive performance of the season so far from the oft-overshadowed member of Washington’s top line.
“That’s what I have to do to get in the game a little more. I know sometimes in games I do have to shoot more, I think I’m used to passing the puck more than shoot it. That’s a habit, but sometimes I have to shoot it to create stuff,” Johansson said. “That’s something I’ve been working on for a while, to shoot more. But when you have Ovi on your line, everybody knows it’s better if he shoots it than I do.”
Coach Adam Oates called it “one of the best games” he’d seen Johansson play. He rewarded the 23-year-old with time on the top power-play unit and that hunch paid off in the second period when Johansson made a nice one-touch pass from behind the goal line to Joel Ward in front for a primary assist.
Johansson has always been a pass-first player and there are times when setting up his all-star linemates is the correct decision. But Oates wants to make sure that when Johansson defers to Ovechkin and Backstrom it’s because it is the proper play rather than habit.
“As much as he looks for Backy and looks for Ovi, he has to play,” Oates said. “He has to play his game and that’s what I talk to him about. I don’t want him making mistakes in the neutral zone because he’s so trying to get it to Backy all the time if the play is get it in.”
Johansson’s speed is his best asset, but he needs to use it smartly. Now in his fourth NHL season, the Capitals need Johansson to outgrow his proclivity for turnovers and over-skating plays and instead make smart decisions to help his linemates when they’re moving up through the neutral zone.
“We talked about it, we want to move around a bit so we come up the ice with speed,” Backstrom said of Johansson’s game. “He brings a lot of speed to the game, that’s one of his keys that he’s got to do. He was skating a lot [against Columbus], was more involved than usual and hopefully we can keep it that way.”
Oates is working with Johansson to help him manage his speed and skating ability, reminding the forward that even though he often can skate circles around others, that’s not usually the correct play.
“He loves the freewheeling game, he loves it. I’ve got to remind him all the time that it’s not,” Oates said. “The game of hockey, other than four on four, it’s pretty tough. You’ve got to grind. He gets a couple shifts where he gets to skate and he thinks it’s going to be easy. Gotta take him down a peg and remind him get it in.”