As Marcus Johansson walked through a nearly empty Washington Capitals dressing room at the team’s training facility in Arlington earlier this week, his chief mentor, Nicklas Backstrom, nodded and commented on the younger Swede’s recent play.
“He’s growing up pretty good, I think,” Backstrom said. “That sure was a nice play he made with Ovi.”
He was referring to Alex Ovechkin’s second goal against the Edmonton Oilers on Wednesday, where he and Johansson passed the puck between them four times on a two-on-zero rush before the left wing scored.
Backstrom has enjoyed watching Johansson improve over the course of his first NHL season, in part because the 20-year-old rookie’s development means Backstrom doesn’t have to rush himself back into the lineup.
Although it’s only a recent and temporary development, Backstrom’s absence with a fractured left thumb resulted in a chance for Johansson to spend time on the top line and showcase how far he has come since his first few months with the Capitals.
Against the defending Stanley Cup champion Chicago Blackhawks on Sunday afternoon at Verizon Center, Johansson likely will skate alongside Ovechkin for a third consecutive game.
Lately, Johansson has been steady playing next to Washington’s franchise player. He doesn’t try to force passes, as he did earlier in the season, and instead uses his speed and skating strength, which many of his teammates marvel at, to create more space for Ovechkin.
“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.”
Even before this stint on the top line, the Capitals’ coaching staff observed his growing calmness with the puck and smart decision-making on a more consistent basis. Johansson already has surpassed the most games he’s ever played in a single season, and his play is getting stronger.
“I think it’s just game experience; the more you play, the better you feel and the more you get to know the other teams,” said Johansson, who has 21 points, including three in his past four games. “I think the confidence is the thing that’s improved most. When you’re getting to do things all the time you know you can do it, and it’s improved my game a lot.”
Everyone could see Johansson’s talent and potential when he arrived in Washington for rookie camp this past summer, so much so that General Manager George McPhee all but guaranteed he would start the season in Washington. His teammates saw a sublime skater and someone who was eager to learn, and over the course of the season they’ve grown to respect Johansson’s toughness.
The latest example came on March 6 against the Florida Panthers when Johansson blocked a shot by Dmitry Kulikov — the puck hit him in his right leg, near his knee — that sent him crumpled to the ice. Johansson said his leg hurt and went partially numb, but when he couldn’t feel the pain much more he rejoined the contest.
“He’s a lot tougher than he looks,” winger Mike Knuble said. “A lot of young players come over, start well and dip where he sort of did the opposite and has gotten much better. Who knows what would have been the best thing for any young player, but keeping him here for the whole year seems to have worked. We’re going to need him to keep it up going forward.”
Where opponents may have rattled him earlier in the season, Johansson manages to endure or avoid the contact and poke-checks. He has become an asset on the penalty kill where his speed allows him to pick a power play’s pockets, and his success short-handed makes Capitals’ coaches think he can continue to see increased time there even after Backstrom returns.
“So much of where he is right now is a confidence thing,” assistant coach Dean Evason said. Early in the year “guys could throw him off when he wasn’t sure of himself.
“Now it’s hard to knock him off the puck, there are situations where he comes into the zone off balance and he still doesn’t lose it. He just stays within himself and stays in control of the puck, his body and the play. That’s when you can see him at his best.”
Capitals notes: Braden Holtby will make his third consecutive start in net for Washington against the Blackhawks on Sunday. . . .
Backstrom is expected to miss a third straight game while wearing a fiberglass cast to protect his fractured left thumb, and there’s still no timetable for his return.