With the Capitals seeking to climb out of a big hole in Game 4 against the New York Rangers with the series potentially hanging in the balance, no one would have been shocked if Nicklas Backstrom shook out of his slump and scored a couple of goals.
He didn’t. But another playmaking Swedish center did, as Marcus Johansson provided tangible evidence that he has been perhaps the Caps’ best player in this series despite being just 20 years old and taking part in his first Stanley Cup Playoffs.
“It’s just a continuation of the last 40 games,” coach Bruce Boudreau said. “I thought the first game he might’ve been a little nervous, but since then he’s been very good. He’s playing a lot of minutes, and he’s an important part of our team.”
While Backstrom has yet to score this series and has just one assist, Johansson has sparkled since Game 1 and looked nothing like New York rookies Derek Stepan and Artem Anisimov - who have shrunk in the spotlight.
Johansson’s key may be very simple: He looks like a kid reveling in playoff hockey.
“That’s when hockey is the most fun,” Johansson said. “I’m enjoying every minute I get to be on the ice, whether it’s practice or it’s a game. We’re having a lot of fun as a team.”
Winning obviously helps, as Johansson and the Caps can eliminate the Rangers with a victory Saturday afternoon at Verizon Center and move on to the Eastern Conference semifinals where they could play the Pittsburgh Penguins, Tampa Bay Lightning, Buffalo Sabres or Montreal Canadiens.
Just being in this spot is thanks in large part to Johansson’s mature attitude and play. And, of course, his two goals in Game 4. Someone had to step up with Mike Knuble out of the lineup - and Johansson said he and his teammates tried to learn from the veteran’s example of scoring from right in front of the net. Both of Johansson’s tallies were of that variety.
“I don’t know if I expected [Johansson] to score Mike Knuble-esque goals, but he’s been getting so close getting the chances I thought that he was going to get a good chance to score,” Boudreau said. “I thought Nicky was going to get a good chance to score - one of those two guys I thought was due.”
It wasn’t Backstrom, who hasn’t scored a goal since March 22. His play all over the ice hasn’t been poor, but the production that the Caps usually count on isn’t there.
“I’ve had some chances but haven’t put them in,” Backstrom said earlier this week. “You always try to help your team as much as you can, and you always try to do your best out there, but sometimes it doesn’t go your way. Hopefully, I do other things out there that’s good.”
Meanwhile, Backstrom’s protege has filled in with speed and now some offense. It’s not a surprise given his 27-point rookie season and the fact that he piled up 31 points in 38 playoff games in Sweden.
“You could see through the season [Johansson] getting better and better, and [in Game 4] he was all over the place,” said forward Jason Chimera, who scored the game-winner in the second overtime Wednesday.
“He plays in all situations, which is nice, and I can’t say enough about him.”