Ask Adam Oates why he thinks the Washington Capitals’ top line has flourished in recent weeks, and his answer may surprise you.
While Alex Ovechkin and Nicklas Backstrom have combined for 48 points in the past 16 games, the Capitals coach not only praises the dynamic duo but continuously singles out the critical role of their overshadowed linemate.
Oates believes Marcus Johansson has served as the perfect complement to Ovechkin and Backstrom since the trio was assembled as a line on March 17, in part because the 22-year-old Swede’s speed and awareness have allowed him to create space and opportunities for his more prominent counterparts.
Still, Johansson laughed when told Oates has continuously cited him as a key to making the line work so well.
“I don’t know about that,” Johansson said earlier this week with a sheepish grin. “I think we all just work hard and do the right things. When you do that you’re going to get scoring chances, and that’s a good feeling.”
In 16 games since he joined Ovechkin and Backstrom on the top line, Johansson has four goals and 12 assists, but he also makes plenty of contributions that aren’t illustrated by his point totals.
A recent example came in overtime Saturday against the Tampa Bay Lightning. With the opponent surging, Johansson showcased arguably his strongest asset — his skating ability — when he got a step on Tampa Bay defenseman Matt Carle with a spin move. In front of Carle, Johansson drove to the net and drew a slashing penalty on Lightning captain Vincent Lecavalier. Washington went on to win the game, 6-5, thanks to a goal by Mike Green on the ensuing power play.
Johansson didn’t get an assist on the game-winning tally, but his efforts were critical in making it happen. The play was a power move that Johansson isn’t especially known for, but it is indicative of his newfound self-assurance — something his teammates have noticed, too.
“JoJo play really well right now,” Ovechkin said. “He feel the game, he play his game. He’s just growing up like a player, like a person I think, too.”
Added Backstrom: “He’s playing with a different confidence. He’s bringing a lot of speed to our line and he can do everything, forecheck, make plays, everything. That’s good for us.”
At the start of the year, though, it was uncertain how Johansson would progress in his third full NHL season. He bounced around the lineup, turnover prone and inconsistent. As the Capitals would eventually realize, Johansson’s poor play was the result of a concussion he suffered back on Jan. 15 in training camp, when he collided with Ovechkin during a scrimmage.
Johansson tried to play through the concussion for two weeks, a decision he recently admitted was misguided. He missed 12 games, but upon returning to the lineup on March 10 after a month off there was a visible difference in his game.
“I didn’t feel good at all. Nothing felt right and I just felt off on everything,” Johansson said earlier this month. “You have to be careful, your health is pretty important, but now it’s good and I’m glad to be back and not worrying about anything. . . . This is the best I’ve felt all year.”
Upon regaining his health and his place in the lineup, Johansson was once again the fluid skater who could throw opponents off guard with an unexpected burst of effortless speed. He’s developed a strong sense of how to work on the left wing in conjunction with Ovechkin and Backstrom, whether knowing where to set a drop pass, cutting through the offensive zone to distract opponents or helping to break the puck out of the Capitals’ zone.
It’s not only his linemates who benefit from Johansson’s presence. Defenseman Mike Green said the young forward has a way of pushing the Capitals’ entire team speed up a notch simply by doing what he does best as a strong skater. And as opponents focus on Ovechkin and Backstrom, the rest of the Capitals know that they’re underestimating the third member of the top trio.
“He’s a little overlooked, a little overshadowed playing with Nick and Ovi, but he’s a very talented hockey player,” Green said. “The stuff that he can do is the same caliber as them, and I mean that in the sense that he kind of plays in the weeds a little bit.”
Oates maintains that as profound as Ovechkin and Backstrom’s success has been recently, Johansson’s role on the line is critical.
“They need him as much as he needs them, and the chemistry they're forming is really solid. They're all involved in the plays,” Oates said. “It's a big part of this team.”