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Caps' Johansson has grown from trying season

By Corey Masisak - NHL.com Staff Writer

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Caps' Johansson has grown from trying season
His second season in the NHL has mirrored Washington's -- fast start, slump in the middle, followed by some strong play since the return of countryman Nicklas Backstrom to the lineup.


ARLINGTON, Va. -- Imagine being 20 years old and moving about 4,000 miles for a new job, and one person in the new office is from back home. A mentoring relationship evolves, but also a close friendship.

Marcus Johansson
Marcus Johansson
Center - WSH
GOALS: 0 | ASST: 1 | PTS: 1
SOG: 4 | +/-: 0
Now imagine that a little more than a year later, everything isn't going quite right with the new job -- and to make matters worse, that friend from home isn't around.

Marcus Johansson went through all this a few months ago. Nicklas Backstrom was a mentor and a buddy, a link to home and a valuable resource to help him survive as a young kid from Sweden in the NHL.

The first few months of Johansson's 2011-12 season mirrored that of his Washington Capitals -- a hot start (five goals in eight October games) followed by a bit of a slump (two in the next two months). Then Backstrom was elbowed in the head Jan. 3 by Rene Bourque, and life for Johansson changed.

"I think it was tough on everybody. We missed him," Johansson said. "He's one of our best players and one of the best players in the League. He's a big leader for us, too, and it is not easy to fill that spot -- not just on the ice, but in the locker room, too. It was tough without him. Everyone is glad to have him back.

"He's a good guy to have around you, and he likes to help out. He's just a great teammate. I think everybody missed him."

While he didn't admit to it, it wouldn't be hard to see Backstrom's absence being particularly difficult for Johansson. His friend and mentor wasn't on the bench between shifts or in the dressing room between periods because of a concussion. There was even a point when Backstrom wasn't in the country -- he went home to Sweden for a mental break from the rehabilitation process.

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For three months the Capitals were short a No. 1 center, their best playmaker -- and, at least during the first half of the 2011-12 season, their best player. It was a tough time for Johansson and his teammates, but it might also be remembered as an important time of development in the young Swede's career.

"Actually, what we saw was Marcus was a little more assertive," assistant coach Dean Evason said. "I think with Nicky not here, I think he felt -- like he was running our power play at times, he was the guy carrying the puck. He was the guy who was getting the drop. I think we've seen him mature a little bit.

"When Nicky came back -- obviously they're good friends and have a great relationship, and I think they have just fit together nicely now. I think when he was out, I think we saw Marcus take a step forward. There were some times where even on the bench, you know Marcus isn't a guy who says a whole lot, but he was saying more and to key guys on the team in different situations than we had some from Marcus before."

Johansson, along with fellow young forward Mathieu Perreault, had more responsibilities with Backstrom out of the lineup. There wasn't much of an increase in offensive production -- 24 of Johansson's 46 points and seven of his 14 goals came in the 42 games after Backstrom's concussion.

There was more playing time with better players and in more important situations, and he responded well. The 46 points represent a significant increase from the 27 he had as a rookie, and in the context of Washington's team-wide dip in scoring, represent a positive sophomore campaign for the Caps' first-round pick in the 2009 NHL Draft.

"I'm taking small steps in the right direction, and it has become a little better a little at a time," Johansson said. "I know I can still do better than I have. Hopefully that will come out now in the playoffs."

Johansson's greatest skills are his speed and skating ability. Watching a player like Johansson collect the puck and separate from defenders as he dashes through the neutral zone is hockey's version of enjoying a fine wine. But he has added grit and physical play -- hockey's whiskey on the rocks -- to his game during his second season with Washington.

He had five hits against Boston in Game 2 -- the same number as noted battering ram Alex Ovechkin. He blocked a pair of shots during Game 1, including one with his face that required stitches.

It wasn't the first time this season Johansson has been hit in the face.

"There's different ways to be tough, and Marcus has played through injuries and bumps and bruises, and last game we saw him be real assertive physically," Evason said. "If you get on the forecheck like that, you have to finish checks. You can create plays -- obviously he created a play on the overtime goal just with his speed -- but once you get in you have to make contact with people to be effective, and he's recognized that."

Added Johansson: "You know, it happens. I've seen other guys get it worse. It is not much to think about. It just happens. I think I was more lucky than [upset]. It just hurts for a little bit and then it is over."

"I think we saw Marcus take a step forward. There were some times where even on the bench, you know Marcus isn’t a guy who says a whole lot, but he was saying more and to key guys on the team in different situations than we had some from Marcus before." -- Washington Capitals assistant coach Dean Evanson

Johansson was drafted as a center and has played most of his two seasons in the middle. The Capitals have been looking for a long-term solution behind Backstrom as the team's No. 2 center, and it is still possible that with another half-step forward offensively Johansson could be the guy who fills that role.

For now, Johansson has moved to the wing. He began this series on the team's third line, but moved up to play alongside Backstrom and Alexander Semin for Game 2. The move paid off when he darted into the left corner to collect the puck after a faceoff and sent it back to Backstrom for the winning goal early in the second overtime.

When Bruce Boudreau coached the Capitals, Johansson was encouraged to skate with the puck through the neutral zone or find openings there for Washington defensemen to send it to him in transition. He was also able to pressure opposing defensemen when they held the puck in their own end and looked for outlet passes. His speed was a natural asset in the middle of the ice.

When Boudreau was replaced with Dale Hunter, there were adjustments to make for everyone, and Johansson in particular. The new system is more passive without the puck. There wasn't going to be as much of Johansson whisking through the middle of the ice, with or without the puck.

The changes have led to Johansson playing more on the wings. Hunter wants speed on the flanks, and guys who will skate after pucks after the team chips it into the offensive zone. There is a new way for Johansson to create havoc with his skating ability, and that additional bit of physical play has helped him make the transition.

"His speed is just -- I know Marcus enjoys playing center -- but with his speed to get pucks, you see him chase pucks down and erase a lot of icings, but he's scored probably four or five wraparound goals just with his speed," Evason said. "That was the thought process when Dale got here to use his speed to our advantage.

"When you're in the middle, you're down low a lot and you're fighting and battling, and this frees him up to use his speed a little more."

Added Johansson: "I think everybody is more physical when it is time for the playoffs. You want to hit and you want to wear them down. If you do that every game, by the end it might turn into your advantage. It is tough and it is tight games. When someone hits you, you want to hit them back. It is part of the game and it is a fun part of the game."

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