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Johansson learning the little things about NHL life

by Dan Rosen
Someone forgot to tell Capitals rookie center Marcus Johansson he could use his feet.

We're not talking about skating or even playing the puck between his blades to settle it down or make a play; that much the 20-year-old from Sweden already knew he could do in the NHL well before he got here. What we're talking about is a trick to win more faceoffs than you lose, which, of course, is a key to success for every center in this League.

In Sweden, Johansson never was allowed to use his feet to win a draw because it's against the rules. He's learned here, however, quick feet can be an important tool to beating your opponent at the drop of the puck.

"He comes over and when everybody is beating him early on in the season he says, 'I guess I can use my feet over here,'" Capitals coach Bruce Boudreau said. "It's learning all these little nuances of the game here."

Johansson has spent the past five months going through a crash course on the little nuances of the NHL game. He's starting to get a hang of his new gig, and he's giving Caps fans hope that maybe their answer for a second-line center has been wearing No. 90 this entire time.

"We see flashes of it every few games, and when he's on, he's really good," Boudreau said.

He was on against the Penguins on Sunday, when he used his fantastic speed and puck control to race down the ice to score the first shorthanded goal of his career. His floating backhander over Marc-Andre Fleury's right shoulder put the Capitals up 2-0 en route to a 3-0 win.

The play was just another sign of Johansson's growth. He has 7 goals and 6 assists in 42 games.

"Speed is his game, and carrying the puck. Now you're seeing some patience, too," said Capitals veteran forward Mike Knuble, who has been playing on Johansson's right side. "He made a great play to me in the third period (against Pittsburgh) where he saw me coming, let it happen, let it happen and delivered the puck right on my stick. I didn't score, but you want to get those chances and they will start going in."

Johansson has used Caps first-line center Nicklas Backstrom as his sounding board all season. They're both Swedes and both came to the NHL at 19 years old after playing in the Swedish Elite League.

Backstrom also took a while to figure out the NHL game, but by this point of his rookie season in 2007-08, he was playing first-line minutes with Alex Ovechkin on his left wing.

"The biggest thing is you have to adjust to the life," said Backstrom, who admitted he also had to learn how to use his feet to win faceoffs. "There's more games over here and you have to be ready in all the games. As a centerman you take on a lot of responsibility. It's a tough schedule and everything, but you have to be on top of your game."

Johansson still rides shotgun in Backstrom's car because he doesn't have a driver's license and needs his slightly older countrymen to chauffer him around. You also may remember seeing Johansson sitting at Backstrom's dining room table enjoying a typical Swedish Christmas dinner during Episode 3 of HBO's "24/7" show.

"He helps me on the ice, off the ice, with everything," Johansson said. "I've learned from him in how he plays the game and how he is as a teammate. It's everything. He's a really good guy so I've tried to pick up as much as possible."

Boudreau said he reminds Johansson of the need for consistency all the time, but understands there will be lulls. He compared Johansson to his own kids when they were 20, saying, "They'd be great one night and I'd be like, 'Geez, I wish you could be this responsible and always come home for dinner at the right time.' The next night you don't see them until midnight."

"The guys that usually do it, that are great in their first year, unless your name is Peter Stastny, are guys that have played in junior and/or college," Boudreau added. "He (Johansson) was playing in the Swedish Elite League; it's not the NHL."

Johansson admits he's struggled with consistency. The Swedish Elite League's schedule is much looser and Johansson never played in more than 45 games in a regular season; he's already played 42 games this season and we're only in February.

Now he knows what Backstrom meant when he talked about the grind.

"We see flashes of it every few games, and when he's on, he's really good."
-- Bruce Boudreau

"Look at Nicky, he always plays good, never has a really bad game. That's what I want to learn from Nicky," Johansson said. "When you don't feel as good as you can you've got to play your game still, help your team. That's the part I want to learn, not to go from all the way up here (reaches high) to all the way down here in the basement. It's a lot to learn."

It is, but Johansson came to Washington with the tools to be a fast learner. We already heard Knuble talking about his patience, and Backstrom said he wishes he had Johansson's speed. Capitals forward Matt Hendricks told it's easy to play with Johansson because he's smart.

"There's a lot of guys in the League that can skate fast, but he knows what to do with it," Hendricks said. "He gets the puck on his stick and he doesn't just put his head down and skate. He looks at people, makes defensemen back off, and the next thing you know he's going by them. He's got a great talent right there."

The Capitals need the Johansson to turn some heads down the stretch. He's taking important faceoffs and playing important minutes for a team that believes it can win the Stanley Cup this season. There's hardly any room for error.

"He's starting to become a full-time pro," Hendricks said. "He's learning it's not just once or twice a week -- it's a job, it's every day. He's learning that and you're seeing the results on the ice."

Follow Dan Rosen on Twitter at: @drosennhl
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