Amid the comeback wins and heartbreaking losses and a strong stretch that might be turning around their season, the Washington Capitals have found a new top defenseman pairing. Young Brendan Witt and all-around expert Calle Johansson are playing quality hockey at both ends of the ice.
The defensive pairings have been swapped much of the season because of injuries and inefficiency, but since Witt returned from a knee injury during the team's West Coast trip, he has skated with Johansson and enjoyed success. Johansson has pushed his offense more the last few games, taking more shots and springing forwards with crisp outlet passes. Witt, with the knowledge that he is playing with a top-notch partner, has felt comfortable enough to be more active in hitting and puck movement.
"Calle's been excellent," Coach Ron Wilson said. "He and Witt have played very well and given us great quality minutes. They're tough to play against when they're skating and playing together the way they are. Witt is playing much more physical. He looks much stronger out there."
Witt had a slow start, seeming tentative and out of place at times. His play has improved, as has the team's. Players are finishing checks, forechecking hard and standing up opponents on the blue line--applying some of the physical principles of Wilson's system. The Witt-Johansson pairing gives the Capitals a mobile unit that can skate with the other team's top forward lines and that mixes skill with brawn. Elements of the veteran's game are rubbing off on Witt.
"Calle is so patient with the puck and waits and waits and knows just when to get rid of it," Witt said. "And I can learn that from him, just by playing with him. We just try to keep it simple and not try to complicate things--get the puck out as fast as possible and play good defense."
Johansson is the only Capitals defenseman to score a goal this season--he has two--and has a deadly and accurate shot. Thus far that shot has been put to use primarily on the team's second power-play unit, but with Sergei Gonchar struggling on the top unit, Wilson said he is likely to give Johansson more power-play time. The Capitals' inability to trigger quick rushes on the man advantage from their own end has hampered their power play.
"It's simple stuff, that's all it is," Wilson said. "We have a simple power-play breakout and we won't do it, and then the 'B' unit goes out there and the breakout works just like that. I think [a personnel change] is what you're going to see until we get to the point where [Gonchar] relaxes and just does it simply."