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Caps rookie Marcus Johansson adapting to NHL's fast pace

By Tarik El-Bashir
Washington Post Staff Writer
Monday, October 11, 2010; 12:21 AM

Washington Capitals center Marcus Johansson has, at times, resembled a seasoned veteran, killing penalties, effortlessly speeding past opponents and distributing perfectly placed passes to teammates. In other moments, he's looked like the 20-year-old he actually is, a wide-eyed rookie facing the biggest leap of his young career.

An example of the latter came less than two minutes into Saturday night's 7-2 thumping of the New Jersey Devils. Johansson, on his first shift in front of the home fans, snagged a loose puck, then casually flipped a backhanded pass though the middle of Washington's zone. The puck, though, never reached Eric Fehr. Instead, it was intercepted by Patrik Elias, and a split second later, Devils center Jason Arnott banged a rebound into the Capitals' net.

"It was a terrible play," Johansson said. "I was a little bit nervous in the beginning. But after that, I felt pretty comfortable out there. I just got mad at myself and played better."

When Johansson returned to the bench, veteran teammate Jason Chimera had words of encouragement for his young linemate.

" 'Keep your head up, keep going,' " Chimera recalled telling Johansson. " 'It happens to the best of 'em. Wayne Gretzky gave away the puck tons of times.' Marcus really responded after that."

Johansson almost made up for his costly miscue moments later. In a dazzling display of his smooth-skating stride and deft puck handling, he cut to the slot and forced Martin Brodeur to make a splendid sprawling stop.

"He had some chances to score and did a good job," Coach Bruce Boudreau said.

Through his first two NHL contests, the good has indeed outweighed the bad. Although he has no points entering Monday night's game against the visiting Ottawa Senators, Johansson is averaging 14 minutes per game, which is more than linemates Chimera and Eric Fehr, and about the same amount of ice time fellow Swede Nicklas Backstrom received in his first month as a rookie center. He also put two shots on net against the Devils after being shut out in Atlanta.

"With young players, the beginning of the season is nerve racking," Boudreau said. "You want to do good for your team and show you belong. It's going to take a few games for Marcus and Karl Alzner and John Carlson to settle down and play the way they are capable of playing."

Unlike Alzner and Carlson, though, nerves aren't all Johansson must overcome. He's simultaneously adapting to a new culture off the ice while adjusting to a different style of play on it. Things unfold faster on the smaller NHL ice surface, as he was reminded on his first shift Saturday.

His learning curve in the faceoff circle is also steep. In Friday's 4-2 loss to the Thrashers, Johansson lost seven of his draws. He was, however, significantly better Saturday, winning seven of 13 faceoffs for the best percentage among the Capitals' centers.

"In Sweden, [faceoffs are] all about skill," Boudreau said. "There's no footwork and no bodywork."

Boudreau said he also expects to see less "circling" from Johansson as the season progresses. While often praised for his defensive responsibility, Johansson sometimes plays too cautiously and backs off when pursuing pucks instead of stopping and engaging opponents.

"It's very similar to Nicklas Backstrom's development," Boudreau said. "Nicky started out slow, and I think Marcus will find his groove and, as he feels more comfortable, he'll play better."

Capitals note: New Jersey enforcer Pierre-Luc Letourneau-Leblond has been suspended one game without pay by the NHL after being assessed an instigator penalty in the final five minutes of Saturday's game. Leblond, who attempted to fight Johansson with 4 minutes 7 seconds remaining, also was assessed slashing, fighting and a game misconduct penalties. He will forfeit $2,822.58 in pay. In addition, Coach John MacLean has been fined $10,000. The Devils host the Capitals on Nov. 22.

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