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Healthy Johansson plays role in Capitals' success

by Arpon Basu /

MONTREAL -- The Washington Capitals had finished their morning skate Tuesday and Nicklas Backstrom was sitting next to linemate Marcus Johansson getting undressed.

The unoccupied locker to their right belonged to their other linemate, Alex Ovechkin.

Standing in front of the two of them was a phalanx of television cameras and reporters, wanting a good spot in front of Ovechkin's locker and paying no attention to the two all-star-caliber players sitting in front of them.

Finally, when it was revealed Ovechkin would not be arriving for a few minutes and it might be a good idea to grab some other interviews, a bunch of microphones were immediately thrown in front of Backstrom.

His high-profile linemates grab the attention, but Marcus Johansson's return to health has played a big role in Capitals' resurgence. (Photo: Getty Images)

Sitting idly to the side was Johansson, now in his third season with the Capitals and a player whose return from a concussion March 10 arguably sparked the tremendous run his higher-profile linemates are on right now.

"I don't even think about that," Johansson said when asked about the lack of attention he received as Backstrom conducted his interviews right next to him. "We're a team, and in here everybody's worth just as much as the other guy."

Ovechkin and Backstrom's recent run of success began two games after Johansson returned from his injury. Ovechkin has 16 goals and seven assists in those 14 games, and Backstrom has three goals and 16 assists over the same span.

Johansson has four goals and 11 assists playing left wing on the Capitals' top line, the most productive 14-game stretch of his young career.

"I honestly think this is the best hockey he's played," defenseman Mike Green said. "Not because of getting points or scoring or anything like that, it's just his confidence and the way he's skating. He's playing very smart right now."

Capitals coach Adam Oates said Johansson has benefitted from Ovechkin's conversion to right wing, giving him room to work freely on the left wing and take advantage of his tremendous speed to put pressure on opposing defenders.

"I think we're a good combination," Backstrom said. "He brings a lot of speed to our line, he's good on the forecheck, he can handle the puck, score some goals and pass. We have a lot of things there on our line, that's why it's been working lately."

This season could not have gotten off to a worse start for Johansson, who collided with Ovechkin in training camp then tried to play through the concussion symptoms he was experiencing. He had one goal and a minus-7 rating in his first nine games of the season before finally shutting it down on Feb. 9, missing 12 games over the next month.


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"I think in the beginning of the year I wasn't feeling good when I was playing," Johansson said. "When I came back after my injury, it was the best I've felt all year. It's good to have that feeling when you play, and I think the confidence has come back with that. When I came back after my injury, I think I picked up where I left off last year.

"You can't even compare it. It's two different games when you're like that."

Johansson had 46 points in 80 games last season playing in a far more conservative system under coach Dale Hunter, a 19-point jump from his rookie season of 2010-11 when he had 27 points in 69 games.

It hasn't always been clear just what kind of player Johansson would become for the Capitals, who selected him in the first round (No. 24) of the 2009 NHL Draft. He bounced up and down the Capitals lineup over his first two seasons, playing various roles for two wildly different coaches -- Bruce Boudreau and Hunter -- but he can now see how that's benefited him.

"That's how it works for a lot of young guys," said Johansson, who is still a young guy at 22 years of age. "I think that's helped me to become a better hockey player, playing on different lines and playing in different situations. That's just a part of growing up as a hockey player.

"There are always times where it's going to be up and down. Some games you might not play as much, but that doesn't mean you have to start over. I think I'm not where I was when I got here."

That last line was Johansson's way of saying he's come a long way since he was a rookie, which is evident when you look at how he's become an integral part of the NHL's hottest line -- even if he remains somewhat in the shadows.

"We're doing the right things, and when you do that you're going to get some goals and get some points. It feels good to know we're doing the right things, and it's a bonus that we're scoring," Johansson said. "The more you play with each other, the more you get to know each other. Every day it gets better and better. We're having a good time and it's fun hockey. We're enjoying it."

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