ARLINGTON, Va. -- With his team trailing the Detroit Red Wings by two goals entering the third period Friday, Washington Capitals coach Adam Oates was in need of a spark.
After a failed power play to open the period, Oates altered his top two lines, reuniting Marcus Johansson, who had recently been centering the team’s second line, with Nicklas Backstrom and Alex Ovechkin after nearly six games apart.
Oates’ intuition came to fruition immediately. On the reassembled first line’s first shift together, Johansson gathered a puck left for him by Backstrom near the end boards and fed Ovechkin in front for his 15th goal of the season, one that ignited Washington’s rally from two down to ultimately defeat Detroit 4-3 in a shootout.
It was the kind of fluid play that comes naturally with undeniable chemistry, which the Capitals’ top trio has firmly established by playing the bulk of their time with each other since late last season.
“We played together quite a bit now,” Johansson said of his reunion with Ovechkin and Backstrom. “It’s the same with everyone: the more you play together, the more you know where to find each other.”
It would be easy for Johansson, let alone any player in the NHL, to cede the spotlight and simply reap the benefits of playing on a line with two of the League’s premier offensive catalysts. Yet the 23-year-old has not been overshadowed, forging his own identity while developing assertiveness and building confidence previously unseen.
Johansson’s play to set up Ovechkin’s game-winning goal Tuesday against the Columbus Blue Jackets provides the best example of his newfound assertiveness. The fleet-footed Johansson carried the puck the length of the ice, eluding a check from James Wisniewski near the half-wall in the offensive zone before charging towards the net and firing a backhand on Sergei Bobrovsky. Ovechkin was simply the beneficiary, beating Bobrovsky on the rebound to clinch the victory.
Johansson has 15 assists, including a League-high nine even-strength primary assists, seven of which have come on Ovechkin goals. Johansson is finally coming into his own, proving that there is more than one efficient playmaker on the Capitals’ first line.
“He’s growing up like a player and like a person as well,” Ovechkin said. “He plays with confidence right now. He isn’t afraid to take a hit, make a move and it’s good for us.”
“You look in the last few games, all year this year honestly, when he’s making a pass lately it’s for a good chance," Oates said. "He’s on a good groove right now. He’s got a lot of confidence. Not to be a cliché, but I can see it in his eyes. He wants to go on the ice.”
Here are the projected lineups for the Capitals and St. Louis Blues for their game Sunday at Verizon Center.
Alexander Steen – David Backes – T.J. Oshie
Vladimir Tarasenko – Patrik Berglund – Jaden Schwartz
Brenden Morrow - Vladimir Sobotka – Chris Stewart
Derek Roy – Maxim Lapierre – Ryan Reaves
Jay Bouwmeester – Alex Pietrangelo
Barret Jackman – Kevin Shattenkirk
Ian Cole – Roman Polak
Scratched: Adam Cracknell, Carlo Colaiacovo
Injured: Magnus Paajarvi (upper body), Jordan Leopold (hand)
Marcus Johansson – Nicklas Backstrom – Alex Ovechkin
Martin Erat – Brooks Laich – Troy Brouwer
Jason Chimera – Mikhail Grabovski – Joel Ward
Aaron Volpatti – Michael Latta – Tom Wilson
John Carlson – Karl Alzner
Nate Schmidt – Tyson Strachan
Alexander Urbom – Steve Oleksy
Scratched: Jay Beagle, Eric Fehr, Dmitry Orlov
Injured: Mike Green (lower-body contusion), John Erskine (upper body), Jack Hillen (fractured tibial plateau)
Notes: Green will miss his second straight game with what the Capitals are calling a lower-body contusion. The defenseman participated in Washington’s optional morning skate, but needs more time before he can return to the lineup.
“He’s out there, he’s moving around,” Oates said. [It's] still bugging him a little bit. And even now he’s had a few days off, it’d be tough to put him right in the lineup without a practice.”