Alexander Semin, Viktor Kozlov, Mike Knuble and Troy Brouwer have one major thing in common: They’ve been the third man on a line with Washington Capitals franchise cornerstones Alex Ovechkin and Nicklas Backstrom.
Even this season a rotating cast of characters have played on left wing with Ovechkin, ranging from Matt Hendricks and Aaron Volpatti to Jason Chimera and Wojtek Wolski. But coach Adam Oates found his permanent solution a month ago in Marcus Johansson.
“Marcus just adds an element of surprise to their line. He can score, he can skate, make plays,” defenseman Mike Green said. “I think he’s a little overlooked, a little overshadowed playing with Nick and Ovi, but he’s a very talented hockey player. The stuff that he can do is the same caliber as them.”
In 16 games since Johansson began skating with Backstrom and Ovechkin going into Thursday at the Ottawa Senators, the 22-year-old Swede had four goals and 12 assists. That’s a polar opposite from his first nine games, when Johansson tried to play through concussion symptoms, compiling just one point and a minus-7 rating.
“If you know you have a concussion and you’re still playing, you shy away from a lot.” defenseman Karl Alzner said. “If that was the case, I have no idea. But if that’s the case, then I can definitely see that happening and that can hurt your game. Whatever the case was, he’s playing good now. That’s all that matters.”
“I think obviously [having] Marcus back helps everybody and helps Backy because the game’s really, really hard. It’s hard to score in this league,” the Caps’ coach said. “They need him as much as he needs them, and the chemistry they’re forming is really solid.”
Ovechkin and Backstrom have thrived since the speedy Johansson joined them on Washington’s top line March 17. In 16 games, Ovechkin had 18 goals and eight assists and Backstrom had three goals and 19 assists.
“He’s playing with a different confidence, I think, and he’s bringing a lot of speed to our line and he can do everything, forecheck, make plays, everything,” Backstrom said. “That’s good for us.”
And good for the Caps, who went from 14th in the Eastern Conference to the No. 3 seed, thanks in part to Johansson’s contributions and the Southeast Division elevator ride up the standings. They jumped from out of the playoff picture to third faster than Johansson can chase down a loose puck.
“He growing up like a player and a person,” Ovechkin said. “[He’s taken] that kind of step [in] his game. It’s worked. I think he has a good chemistry right now with us, and he knows exactly how we’re playing and how he have to play with us.”
Familiarity is Johansson’s friend, more so being with the same linemates than staying at left wing instead of shuffling back and forth from center.
“I think what helps most is to play with the same two guys for a while, and the more you play together, the more you get to know each other,” Johansson said.
He began the season with Backstrom and Ovechkin but struggled. Oates wondered if it was too much to ask, but once Johansson returned to the lineup after missing 12 games because of the concussion, he looked like the player the coach had seen on tape.
The reward of returning to the top line followed, a show of trust from Oates.
“Playing I don’t know how many minutes and on the first line, I think he believes in you a little bit,” Johansson said. “I’m just enjoying it and trying to play my best.”
“The big thing with Marcus is speed. He’s one of those guys that when he’s skating he’s kind of making everybody else, not only his line but the other lines, pick up the pace, and he’s very effective,” Green said. “Not many guys can skate as fast as he can, handle the puck and make plays at that speed so he definitely has that in his repertoire.”
Johansson and his repertoire will continue to be overshadowed as long as he plays with a $9 million captain in Ovechkin and a $6.7 million star in Backstrom. But Oates believes he’s the key to the top line’s success, even if Johansson laughs that off and can’t explain why he works so well in that spot.