Every even-strength shift of every game, Washington Capitals defenseman Calle Johansson knows he will be paired on the ice with Brendan Witt. Likewise, Ken Klee and Sergei Gonchar can trust that they will be together as well.
That stability has been the genesis of the team's return to solid defense. After experimenting with a plethora of combinations over the first 29 contests, first-year coach Bruce Cassidy has recently displayed faith in his top defensive pairs from game to game, and the defensemen are thriving on the cohesion, better anticipating where their partners will be.
"We play together as a pair now," Johansson said. "We keep the same pairs going the whole game, and I think that's the biggest thing. Especially as a defenseman, you get a better feel for it when you play with the same guy the whole night. That's been the biggest difference the last five or six games."
Witt and Johansson were a formidable pair in 2000-01, but serious injuries to both players kept them from forming a duo last season. Cassidy only recently began to play them together extensively, and the results have been positive. Johansson, 35, has rounded into the complete defenseman he was before missing nearly all of last season recovering from career-threatening shoulder surgery, and Witt again is a menacing presence on the ice.
"Witter's game is better," Cassidy said. "He's being physical and getting in people's faces, and he and Calle have found a bit of their chemistry."
Klee has been Washington's most consistent defenseman this month, combining physical play and sound fundamentals in a style similar to that of Joe Reekie, Gonchar's former longtime partner. Gonchar is having perhaps the best season of his career from a purely defensive standpoint -- the coaches have emphasized the need for him to concentrate on that aspect of his game -- and is sixth among all NHL defensemen with 25 points.
"In the beginning we tried different partners, and now we figured out the right person," Gonchar said. "It's always easier when you know who your partner is, and when you play together, you learn what to expect from him. It's a good thing and I think it is paying off now. The idea behind it is each pair has one guy who can jump in [the attack] and the other stays back, and I guess that's why we start picking it up, because now everyone knows what to expect."
Cassidy has been riding his top four defensemen the past few weeks, with Gonchar sometimes topping 30 minutes a game and Johansson often over 25. Rick Berry, arguably the team's best defenseman the first month of the season, is playing only about eight to 10 minutes a game lately after being scratched for several games, and journeyman Jason Doig has joined Berry on the third defensive pair.
"I think we're getting a lot of quality minutes out of [the top two pairs], but I'm probably playing them too much," Cassidy said.
General Manager George McPhee badly wants to add a solid, hard-hitting defenseman to elevate the level of the third pair, allowing it to play in more difficult situations and eat up more ice time. Until that happens, the forwards must continue to commit to the simplified defensive system Cassidy installed two weeks ago.
"The forwards are way better now helping out defensively, and we're more like a team," Johansson said. "But, hey, we still have a long way to go."
Capitals Notes: Enforcer Stephen Peat, who has been out since early November because of a hand injury, was cleared by doctors to return to the lineup after the Christmas break. "It's healed really well," Peat said. "Now I just need a few more days to strengthen it up." Peat's return could coincide with Alex Henry's return to the minors.