Marcus Johansson knew he had to be better after coach Adam Oates benched him in the third period of a loss to Winnipeg last week. But the Washington Capitals forward didn’t do enough in the interim to avoid being a healthy scratch for Sunday’s game against the Buffalo Sabres.
Johansson had a team-worst minus-5 rating and zero points through four games.
“I just think he’s been a little bit unlucky lately and [wanted to] give him a chance to take a step back and watch a game and re-evaluate,” Oates said. “He’s been trying. It’s not that. … But I just want to give him a breather, because sometimes when it’s not going your way and you’re a young kid, it can snowball.”
At the time, Johansson was critical of himself, saying: “I need to get better.”
“It’s the same for every single guy and it always has been: You’ve got to evaluate yourself, listen to what the coach says, take what you want out of it,” Oates said. “You’re supposed to play the way that that system is and what that coach wants.”
Oates hasn’t been afraid to mix and match his lineup when players aren’t performing. Sitting players can be motivational, or it can be a psychological setback.
“I think you get every reaction in the world,” Oates said. “Some guys get mad, which obviously is understandable. That’s what you want. And hopefully, they take a look at themselves sometimes, evaluate themselves.”
Center Mathieu Perreault, who was a healthy scratch Friday night at the New Jersey Devils, returned to the lineup in place of Johansson.
Perreault complained about his ice time before Thursday’s loss to the Montreal Canadiens and played a season-high 12:15.
“It wasn’t so much his play at home [against Montreal] the other night, he played pretty good,” said Oates, who called it a “numbers game.”
The numbers game on the blue line is that two defensemen must sit out. Sunday, they were Roman Hamrlik and Tom Poti, while Jeff Schultz and John Erskine remained in the lineup.
Tuesday’s game at the Ottawa Senators will be the Caps’ fifth in eight days. With minimal days off because of the compressed 48-game schedule, it’s a balance between conditioning and fatigue.
“Every day we talk about it, every day we try and analyze it: ‘How can we rest these guys? They’re playing so much,’” Oates said. “You’re seeing already some little nagging injuries around the league, groin pulls, backs, hip flexors, and so far we haven’t had that. That’s actually a goal.”
Physically, that many games can be taxing. But given Washington’s start, it might not be so bad mentally.
“I think right now, it’s good for us to be able to keep getting more and more games under our belt and not having to think about it too much, about our bad play and about losing games,” defenseman Karl Alzner said.
“It’s nice to be able to keep going one after the other. But you definitely have to take care of yourself a lot better, a lot more carefully, on days off.”
It’s up to Oates and the coaching staff to figure out when to give players rest and when to try to squeeze more out of them. Individual players have to deal with the variables, too.
“It’s a different schedule, absolutely,” Backstrom said. “But I think it’s the same thing for everybody and you just got to deal with it, and make sure you’re on top of your game every night.”