The urge to shoot had never felt natural for Marcus Johansson. Passing pucks was far more innate than launching them. But after a preseason spent changing that mentality, here came the perfect chance to put thoughts into action.
Two New Jersey Devils skated backward, closing the window between Johansson and the goalmouth. In previous seasons, the Capitals forward might have deferred to a teammate, seeking out the next move. This season, tasked by Coach Barry Trotz to shed those conservative impulses, Johansson showed no hesitation. His stick swung back, and the puck snaked between the defensemen, past goaltender Cory Schneider and into the net.
“It’s fun to score,” Johansson said of what became the game-winning goal in a 6-2 victory Thursday night, “so I don’t mind keep trying to do it.”
Last season, Johansson earned the ignominious distinction of becoming the first NHL skater with fewer than three even-strength goals in more than 1,400 minutes, a style born back home in Sweden. The bigger rinks opened wider passing lanes, and Johansson always fancied himself a distributor.
Four games into this season, his fifth in Washington, Johansson already has scored twice. His shots-per-60-minutes have doubled (8.90 from 4.05), and albeit in a small sample size, the newfound aggression has found positive early returns.
“You get the puck, and you’re looking for the next play,” Trotz said. “And I think when you have a shoot-first mentality, you get the puck and you’re looking to throw it towards the cage. They’re so skilled and so good at it — if it’s not there, last-second, change your mind, make a quick pass — they’re that good.”
Passing had never presented a problem. Since Johansson cracked the Capitals, drafted 29th overall in 2009 then debuting one season later, only Alex Ovechkin and Nicklas Backstrom have recorded more assists at even strength than his 64. But shedding the distributor label has taken time and concentrated effort.
“The more you do it, the more it’s going to come naturally, I think,” Johansson said. “And that’s why I think passing has been a natural thing for me because I’ve always kind of been a passer. At the same time, I don’t want to take that away from my game either but just find a good balance, I think, and if the more I shoot now at the beginning, the more it’s going to come naturally.”
Part of that meant changing his instincts. He remains a solid power-play option along the goal line. His speed allows quick rushes up the ice and, on occasion, wraparound attempts to surprise goaltenders.
“That’s what I like to see out of Marcus, and he started showing that,” Trotz said. “He’s going to get results if he does that.”
But adding a quick trigger? Changing the body language that telegraphed a reluctance to shoot? That took accepting the idea that, as slap shot-happy forward Chris Brown said, “anything can happen.”
“It’s just got to come natural as a habit, to shoot,” Brown said. “Especially in this league, with goalies being so good, you have to keep shooting pucks. No shot’s a bad shot.”
According to data from Sporting Charts, a Web site that tracks shot locations and types, Johansson’s third-period goal against New Jersey was the longest of his career.
“When I get in, I want to get a shot off, and I want to create something by doing that,” he said. “I think it might make it a little harder for the goalie if I pass because he might be expecting a shot. I think it’s a good thing, and I’m glad to adjust to it a little bit. Hopefully it’s going to keep being for the better. I don’t mind scoring, so it’s good.”
Thursday’s sequence began when Johansson dropped the puck to forward Brooks Laich along the far boards and bolted into open space as Laich won the battle. Teammates mobbed Johansson as the puck struck nylon. At this rate, he will set a career best for shot attempts sometime around mid-January, a new emphasis added to a game in which the thrill of scoring and dishing always have seemed equivalent.
“It’s about the same,” Johansson said. “As long as someone scores, it doesn’t really matter, but scoring is what you have to do, and when you do that and help the team win, it’s a good feeling.”