With more than half of the NHL season in the books, Marcus Johansson has more than grown into his NHL suit. Värmlands Folkblad met the former Färjestad talent, who has played with great success for the Washington Capitals in the United States this season. [Simone Götesson,Värmlands Folkblad]
WASHINGTON D.C. The time is 10:45, Saturday morning and the empty ice at Kettler Capitals Iceplex, Washington Capitals training arena, starts to fill up with NHL pros. In front of the packed stands, the future Swedish star Marcus Johansson glides across the ice. Less than one year ago he was a young Färjestad talent. Now he is filling in as Washington’s first line center between Alexander Ovechkin and Mike Knuble in Nicklas Bäckström's injury absence.
Easy to be star-struck in such an environment, and not focus on your own game?
"Yeah but that's just how it is with Ovechkin, he’s the type of player that automatically gets a lot of attention, it’s like, "Where's Ovi all the time?". But lately I have had some talks with the coach (Bruce Boudreau, Ed. note.) and he simply said, "If you just play your game then you will be just fine," says Marcus, who earlier in the season had a few sporadic shifts together with the Russian.
He looks out over the nearly empty, and relatively odor free locker room, and adds:
"In the last two games I have played my game and he has played his and we have meshed that way, instead of like before when I tried to adapt my game too much. It feels good and it's great that it has worked," he says with a smile on his face.
And it has certainly worked. At the time of the interview the duo have played two games together. Result: Ovechkin, three goals, and Marcus with the assist on two of them.
Alex Ovechkin has some high praise for him "He's performing very well and it's fun to play on the same line as him."
The clock strikes 11:00 and Coach Bruce Boudreau blows his whistle to start the practice. The atmosphere is good - as it should be in a team that at the time had won seven straight. The 30 minute long practice is easy, but the plain sailing ends abruptly with a round of some classic suicide drills. Some players leave as soon as the practice is over, but many of them stay on the ice. Marcus Johansson is one of them. The injured Nicklas Bäckström another. They dribble, shoot, goof around. Just have some pure fun.
Marcus looks relaxed. Comfortable. Just as he looks during the games, where he has looked more and more comfortable. He’s not holding back anymore and he’s taking full advantage of his speed to get what he wants on the ice. As a result, the points have started to add up. At the time of the interview Marcus has come away with points in four straight games (two goals and three assists). And in the last 15 games he has accounted for eleven points (four goals, seven assists.). It is almost half of his total 24 points this season.
What have you developed the most, why are you getting the results now?
"I think it is the confidence that has developed most, You dare to try things out there all the time, and you know when you can do it. I think it has improved my game a lot, because you do things you normally don’t do if you don’t feel safe."
If confidence is one factor in Marcus great play lately, so is the gained experience another.
He explains: "The more you play, the better you feel. It’s different from back home and the more you play and get used to the new situations, the easier it gets if you can put it that way."
The time is closing in on 12:00. Marcus has picked up the pucks and is one of the last players to leave the ice. Young fans are screaming his name, and he goes to sign autographs. He then has to hurry off to a team meeting with almost all of his equipment still on. And then he can finally sit down in his stall in the locker room.
He’s wedged in a corner between the goalkeeper Semyon Varlamov, and veteran center Jason Arnott, new from the New Jersey Devils. Nicklas Bäckström sits six stalls down next to Ovechkin. Bäckström has been somewhat of a mentor for Marcus during his first time in the NHL.
"He has been great and a big help. I don’t know how I would have managed without him, whatever I need he helps me with it. Just seeing him play is helpful enough," says the 20-year-old with gratitude in his voice.
But Bäckström doesn’t want to take the credit.
"No, I don’t think I have helped him that much, he is pretty much self-taught."
However, Bäckström has done two things to make Marcus’ life easier: When he bought his house, he let Marcus take over his old apartment, which is within walking distance of the practice rink. And he acted as Marcus’ own private chauffeur.
"Yeah exactly, he didn’t have a car when he first got here. In hindsight that was a good thing it gave us a chance to get to know each other."
Bäckström is happy that it’s Marcus who has gotten the chance to play with Ovechkin now that he himself is out with an injury.
"I think it's good, it's fun. I think he has done it pretty damn good, actually. He has learned to play here; in the beginning it’s tough over here, there are some differences and so, but I think he has done a pretty damn good job and I hope he can continue in the same style.
The clock has passed 12:30, and Marcus has to go. He has plans together with some teammates. A Segway tour in Washington DC, which he describes as a nice and homey town, is on the schedule. And this time he doesn’t need to ask Bäckis for a ride into town.
"No, I have my own car now, so I can take care of myself," he says with a smile.
On scoring his first goal against the Boston Bruins on October 19, 2010:
"He-he, yeah ... The only thing I remember is that I got a good pass from (Jason) Chimera. I don’t even know how that one went in, it just slipped in under him some how. It was a very nice feeling," (Marcus says with a big smile).
When he realized that he got what it takes to stay in the NHL:
"I suppose it was when I took a spot on the team, when I understood that this is really happening. I had a feeling before I signed the contract too. I wouldn’t have crossed the pond if I didn’t have that feeling."
On being star-struck:
"In the beginning I felt that way but I don’t feel like that anymore. Not when you proved to yourself that you can play at this level and that you are just as good as many of the other players over here."
"He has grown as the season have progressed. His play on both sides of the ice, especially his defense, have been much better in the second half. That is probably what have kept him up here, the game in his own zone, it has been really good." - Mike Knuble
"He's a phenomenal player. The way he has stepped up and shown what he can do at this level, it’s fantastic for a young player like him. He will only get better with time." - Mike Green
"He grows up as a player. He has a European style of play and reads the game well, so it's pretty easy for me to play with him. He will only get better and better." - Alexander Ovechkin
"Marcus has always had all this talent and he will be a very good player. You can see that it was a very good draft pick and he have played a big role. We have used him a lot. I don’t know what more I can say: he is a very good player." - Bruce Boudreau