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Caps shuffle lines in search of more consistency

by Corey Masisak
WASHINGTON -- Eight days ago Marcus Johansson was playing against the Charlotte Checkers, a newly relocated team in the American Hockey League.

When he lines up for his first faceoff Wednesday, he will look to his left and see Alex Ovechkin. Johansson, a 20-year-old rookie who was a 2009 first-round pick, will skate on the team's top line against the Buffalo Sabres at Verizon Center as coach Bruce Boudreau continues to shuffle his lines after a couple of uneven performances.

"I played a period with him before and I think it is fun," Johansson said. "You get to play with someone who creates something all the time and can make things happen. It is fun to play offensive hockey and with Alex it is a great chance for some offensive hockey. It is a big chance for me and it is going to be fun."

Johansson made the team during training camp and began the season as Washington's No. 3 center. He has played two games on the second line -- including at the start of the previous meeting with the Sabres four days ago.

This could be Johansson's first extended action next to Ovechkin on the top line. Managing his nerves could be just as important as managing the puck.

"I don't know -- he doesn't come across that way. He doesn't seem like a nervous type of guy," said Mike Knuble, who will be complete the line. "I'll probably tell him to just do what you do. He skates well and that is probably the biggest thing, to be skating, make your plays in the middle and handle the puck. It sounds easy and stupid to tell a guy to 'do what you do,' but I think the natural tendency for a young player is try and defer to Alex and get everything that way. It is natural to want to keep the top guy happy in that respect, but his speed can really create stuff."

Added Boudreau: "I'd like to see him skate like he did the third period of the Atlanta game (Monday) and the second period of the Boston game (Oct. 21). When he skates like that he's got the puck, and when he's got the puck he is creating things because his speed is allowing it. We've seen those flashes and it proves he's going to be good, but we'd like to get it on a more consistent basis."

Johansson already has had to deal with a pair of injuries, including a hip flexor that kept him out of the lineup for six games before he went to the AHL for an unofficial conditioning stint. He's missed 10 of Washington's 18 games and has a lone goal and no assists to this point.

Transitioning from the Swedish Elite League to the NHL was going to be tough enough, but dealing with injuries has sidetracked Johansson a bit.

"Of course it has been bothering me a little bit, but I'm back now and I am trying not to think about it," Johansson said. "I just want to get it over with and now it feels like it is over. I just want to go out and play again and not think about it too much. … I went to Charlotte (with the Hershey Bears), and it was a good experience. I needed those games to get going again. It was a good decision to have me go down for two games and then come back before I played again."
When the Capitals were surging to the top of the NHL standings thanks to a six-game win streak, Boudreau kept his lines mostly intact, but since a disastrous second period in Buffalo, he has been mixing and matching from game-to-game and even period-to-period.

Putting Johansson on the top line with Ovechkin means Nicklas Backstrom will center the second unit with Alexander Semin and Brooks Laich (though that trio has combined for 21 more points than Ovechkin, Johansson and Knuble). While Boudreau has flipped Semin and Knuble between the top two lines often during the past two seasons, he doesn't break up Backstrom and Ovechkin nearly as much.

Ovechkin has been on the ice for nearly 90 percent of Backstrom's ice time at even strength this season -- and a fair chunk of the time spent apart is during broken line changes.

"Sometimes they need a break," Boudreau said. "What we need -- and I know it is crazy to say because of where we rank in goals for -- but we need way more balance. If you load up on one line it is going to be easier to check them. I know they love playing together, but it is something that we have an option and it makes it difficult for other teams. Do you put your best defensemen against Nicky and Semin or do you put them against Alex? It gives us options."

Knuble thinks the changes -- which include dropping Eric Fehr to the fourth line and moving David Steckel to the third -- are more about what has been going on at the other end of the ice. The Capitals began the season without the typical high-flying offense, but Washington was among the League leaders in goals-against.

Since yielding four goals on a three-game road trip, the Capitals have conceded three goals or more in six of the past seven games. Washington is 6-0-1 in those contests, but team defense continues to be a focus for the club.

"(Boudreau) may be trying to make a point," Knuble said. "He said something the other day about responsibility on each line and being responsible on each line. We know we have a number of guys who can score goals and will score goals, but we have to be better as a group. That (scoring depth) will carry us through the regular season, but we've got to be better as a group come April about keeping them out. It can't be about beating teams 6-4, 6-5. We can't do that. We can't expect to score five, six goals every night."

It also could be a way to help Ovechkin out of a mini-slump. His offensive production (10 goals, 25 points) is fine, but he hasn't been having the type of impact on games that has come to be expected. Ovechkin only has four shots on net in the past three games combined -- and none after the first period in each of the past two contests.

Playing with Backstrom and Semin seemed to be a profitable venture for all three players, but getting away from them for a spell could help Ovechkin rekindle his dynamic touch.

"I'm sure Alex, in a perfect world, would have 10 shots on goal every game," Boudreau said. "But when the other team defends a little bit better, it doesn't happen. If he is tired or he's played a lot or hurting or something, he doesn't get these opportunities. It is an impossible question for me to answer. He wants to."
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