Marcus Johansson appears to have reclaimed his spot on the Washington Capitals top line. Coach Adam Oates put the fleet-footed forward there in the third period Friday night, a decision that paid immediate dividends when Alex Ovechkin scored on his first shift, and Johansson was working the Ovechkin and Nicklas Backstrom again during Saturday’s skate at Kettler.
Johansson, 23, has clearly established chemistry and confidence playing with Washington’s top two players.
“We played together quite a bit now, it’s the same with everyone, the more you play together the more you know where to find each other and I think it just kind of starts to come naturally,” said Johansson, who is second on the team with 15 assists through the first 20 games.
“My confidence is a little bit better,” Johansson added. “But I think that comes with playing more, you get more comfortable in every situation and the more you play the better you feel.”
Prior to the brief hiatus from their company that lasted less than six games, Johansson skated 40 consecutive games, regular season and playoffs, alongside Ovechkin and Backstrom dating back to last season when the trio was united on March 17. In that span, he’s recorded five goals and 26 assists.
But Johansson has begun playing with more assertiveness where he previously deferred to more experienced linemates. Whether by forcing penalty killers to back off by working the puck along the half wall before sending a pass on to John Carlson in Phoenix, fighting through a check to set up Ovechkin’s overtime winner against Columbus, or winning a battle against Pavel Datsyuk down low to set up Ovechkin in Detroit, he is clearly forging his own identity.
“You look in the last few games, all year this year honestly, when he’s making a pass lately it’s for a good chance,” Oates said. “The goal wasn’t as good as the next shift when he gives Ovi an empty netter on the PP. There [were] three [chances] in five minutes that are all legitimate, Grade-A scoring chances. He’s on a good groove right now. He’s got a lot of confidence. Not to be a cliché but I can see it in his eyes. He wants to go on the ice.”
At this point there’s no reason to believe Oates won’t keep the unit together when the Capitals host the St. Louis Blues Sunday night at Verizon Center. Line combinations are all about finding a mix that clicks, and they’ve established that. Not to mention having two dangerously efficient playmakers alongside Ovechkin only seems to create more opportunities for the star right wing, who appreciates his younger linemate’s development.
“He’s growing up like a player and like a person as well,” Ovechkin said. “He play with confidence right now, he isn’t afraid to take a hit make a move and it’s good for us.”
Defenseman Mike Green skated for roughly a half hour Saturday morning in Arlington after sitting out the contest in Detroit with a lower-body contusion. Green looked more fluid in his stride on the ice in that session than he did before in a brief stint during the morning skate at Joe Louis Arena a day earlier, but his status for Sunday’s game against the St. Louis Blues remains uncertain.
“He skated, he skated pretty good. So hopefully that’s encouraging for [Sunday],” said Oates, who added that he wouldn’t hesitate to play Green against a physical Blues squad.
Green, who suffered this latest injury in Washington’s 4-3 overtime win against Columbus on Nov. 12, has missed 94 of the past 232 regular season games dating back to the start of the 2010-11 season.
If Green is unable to face the Blues, Washington will need another strong effort from a largely inexperienced group of blueliners. John Carlson was dismissed from practice early to rest Saturday after skating 32:26 against the Red Wings Friday night and while Oates is confident the 23-year-old can handle the load, he hopes not to make him regularly shoulder that much ice time.
Oates was also pleased with the play of Tyson Strachan, who had a composed effort in 21:43 against Detroit in his Capitals debut after being recalled late Thursday night.
“The poise. Big guy back there but just the poise with the puck, [he] didn’t get rattled, gave his partner good passes,” Oates said of what impressed him about Strachan. “We exited the zone there probably five times in the third period we got out because he made a good play.”