Alex Ovechkin’s transition to right wing has had its share of hiccups. The most violent moment came when he collided with Washington Capitals teammate Marcus Johansson during a training camp scrimmage on Jan. 15.
Ovechkin left for the locker room briefly but returned soon after. Johansson finished the scrimmage like nothing was wrong and brushed off concern afterward.
“It was nothing special. It happens, unfortunately,” Johansson said at the time. “It’s something to laugh about now, I guess.”
Johansson should not have been laughing. In his first seven games, the 22-year-old forward wasn’t himself, scoring just one goal and putting up a minus-7 rating.
After three and a half weeks, Johansson finally had to tell the training staff how he had been feeling, that he was dealing with a concussion.
“I think you always should do that,” Johansson said. “[But] we just got started with the season and it’s a short season and you want to play and you want to feel right and you want to feel good and be a part of it from the start. After a while I noticed that it wasn’t good and I couldn’t play.”
So he sat out 12 games, stayed off the ice and went through the necessary NHL-mandated protocol to get back. Since his return, Johansson has impressed the coaching staff by looking like his old self.
“One of the best forwards,” coach Adam Oates said. “I saw what I saw on the tape watching the playoffs last year. I really saw some energy and skating and being a bit of a hound on the puck and making good decisions.”
When Johansson addressed his injury in mid-February, he denied that the training camp collision was to blame. But after the team revealed that the young Swede passed a neuropsychological test as part of the league’s concussion protocol, Oates didn’t have to make a far leap in recalling that.
“You know, maybe that hit in training camp did hurt him where he was trying to fight through it and didn’t have the pace I saw the other night,” he said.
Johansson will play his third game since coming back Thursday night at the Carolina Hurricanes. His performance in the first two earned him a promotion to the second line.
Oates is trying to find minutes for Johansson, and that includes a role on the power play and the penalty kill.
“It feels good,” he said. “I want to play as much as possible, obviously. I think everybody does.”
Johansson wanted so badly to play that he tried to play through concussion symptoms. After starting the season on the Caps’ first line alongside Nicklas Backstrom and Ovechkin, he slipped to the fourth line and then twice was a healthy scratch.
Johansson learned that this was something he couldn’t adequately fight through.
“It’s also a lesson for him that you’ve got to be honest with the trainer because you are getting judged,” Oates said. “You get judged by me, you get judged by [the media], everybody. So we’ve got to be smart about it. I appreciate him trying to fight through it, no question, but I’m more encouraged by the way he played the other night. That’s great, we need that for the second half.”
Given the lack of secondary scoring, Johansson could help ease the burden on the stars. He missed on two point-blank chances Tuesday against Carolina that Oates said could have changed the game.
“I should’ve scored a couple,” Johansson said. “But the good thing was that I got to the chances. I had chances to score instead of just skating around out there and creating. That’s what felt good, I think, that we created chances and just should’ve scored.”
Even if the production wasn’t there, Johansson’s teammates noticed his extra jump even if acknowledging his timing was a bit off.
“His first game back I thought he was the best player on our team, with energy and playmaking ability,” right wing Troy Brouwer said. “I think he’s comfortable at center. I think that’s where he’d like to be, and hopefully we can create some offense and get some chemistry.”
Oates likes having Johansson in a prominent role because his speed is vital to pushing the pace. Other then left wing Jason Chimera and perhaps center Mathieu Perreault, the Caps don’t have any true burners who can turn defensemen around.
And the silver lining to being out a month is that Johansson has some extra jump.
“With JoJo, he’s a good, skilled player,” Brouwer said. “Hopefully his legs are fresh and he’s got a lot of energy.”
Armed with energy and a desire to prove himself, nothing is more important to Johansson right now than being healthy.
“This is the best I’ve felt all year,” he said. “I feel like I usually feel, and that’s a pretty good feeling. I’m just glad to be out there and playing and try to help the team win games.”