Last night the Washington Capitals played a back-and-forth contest with their division rival the Columbus Blue Jackets. After blowing yet another lead in the second half of the third period, Mikhail Grabovski scored his 100th goal of his career and gave the Caps a point, with a chance for a second. As overtime got underway, Marcus Johansson caught the Blue Jackets on a line change and raced up ice, putting the Caps on the attack. Johansson has been a bit of a lightning rod in Caps land over the course of his career... but what happened next was something that neither his fans or critics could have expected:
Johansson uses his speed to race through the neutral zone, and isn't even pressured until R.J. Umberger gives him token pressure just outside the offensive blueline. Johansson barely even responds to Umberger's pressure, beating him wide to gain the zone with ease.
The problem for Johansson, or so it appeared at the time, is that once Umberger forces him wide he loses his angle toward the middle of the ice and is left lined up on the boards. James Wisniewski, no stranger to dropping the hammer, saw the undersized Swede and attempted to knock him back to the Allsvenskan.
Unfortunately for Wisniewski, and to the amazement of Caps fans, this happened:
Johansson saw the check coming, dodged it, drove the net and put the puck on Sergei Bobrovksy, who was unable to control the rebound. Once again, three defenders (of the four on the ice) all turned their attention to Johansson, leaving Alex Ovechkin alone in the slot to slam home the rebound. Johansson may not have convinced Caps fans, but he sure seems to have the attention of opposing defenders.
Johansson's check-dodge was beautiful and textbook. The first thing you notice is that Johansson gets low to the ice, and tight to the boards. Getting low to the ice gives him a lower center of gravity and more leverage to withstand the hit; these are principles that are familiar to fans of football, rugby, wrestling, or any other contact sport. Johansson gets so low that he drops to one knee as the contact comes, and gets tight to the boards, which helps him brace against the sideways impact and reflect any impact back into the checker. Wisniewski largely misses the check by going over top of Johansson - and even if he had gotten more of Johansson's shoulders there is a good chance that force would have been redirected back into Wisniewski.
But Johansson beats the check, and maintains control of the puck. When a player is carrying the puck up ice and is facing the threat of a check into the boards, the safest place to be is closest to the boards, as counterintuitive as that may seem. Any distance between the puck carrier and the boards creates the potential for disastrous injury; Johansson obviously knows this and uses it to beat another Columbus defender, leaving two in his dust.
Following the contact, watch how Johansson uses the inside skate edge of his left skate. As he cuts along the bottom of the faceoff circle it looks like he's just riding the inside skate edge, but he's pushing off on it, giving him more power to drive the net. It's a subtle move, but that's what allows him to beat Ryan Murray (who left covering Ovechkin to try to head off Johansson on the goal line). Murray drifts too far towards the goal line, leaving plenty of space in the low slot for the Caps attackers. This isn't the first time we've seen that from Columbus. That doesn't seem like the right way to play, but I'll defer to R.J. since I'm not an expert.
Johansson already beat Umberger and Wisniewski singlehandedly, and Murray makes it relatively easy to be the next in line by overplaying Johansson's path along the goal line... which means that Ryan Johansen is the only defender left to cover your reigning MVP.
Johansen, already physically out-matched, loses the body position battle from the start, and doesn't do anything to overcome that disadvantage. Skating in from his position high in the defensive zone, Johansen gives Ovechkin a little bump from behind, but doesn't even try to tie up Ovechkin's stick - and we all know that Ovechkin is not going to be deterred by a little contact in the slot. If anything, Ovechkin is the one that knocks. After his cursory attempt at covering Ovechkin, Johansen appears to try to poke check Johansson as the latter puts the puck on net, bringing the grand total of Blue Jacket defenders focused on Marcus Johansson to four out of four.
It didn't work so well when Claude Giroux tried to take on the entire Caps team, but Johansson walked through the entire Columbus defense last night to set up his wing man for the game winning goal. There may not be any words for how bad that defense was... but James Wisniewski probably has a thought on it.
The Great Johansson Debates will almost certainly continue, but with each passing highlight Johansson seems to be proving his doubters wrong, and showing that he has indeed added to his game making him more than just a passenger on the top line. That's certainly a shocking development for a 23 year old player, but we look forward to watching his game continue to evolve.