Capitals' Marcus Johansson fills in nicely for Nicklas Backstrom on top line

Rookie center Marcus Johansson (90) has three assists in his past four games and has filled in well on the Capitals' top line. (Toni L. Sandys/The Washington Post)
Rookie center Marcus Johansson (90) has three assists in his past four games and has filled in well on the Capitals' top line. (Toni L. Sandys/The Washington Post) (Washington Post)
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, March 13, 2011; 4:58 PM

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.

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