The question was raised in varying forms to members of the Washington Capitals following their 4-2 victory against the Columbus Blue Jackets on Tuesday: If someone were to tell you at the beginning of the season that Marcus Johansson would be tied with Alex Ovechkin for the team lead in goals at this point, what would you say?
"I would not believe it," Nicklas Backstrom said.
"I'd be happy," Johansson replied sheepishly.
"I don’t want to say I called it, but you could tell right from the start, or I could notice it, he was a different player this year," Braden Holtby said. "And he’s really getting rewarded for it. Pretty humble guy, so he’s blaming it on good bounces and stuff, but he’s going to the right areas, he’s going hard, every shift, using his phenomenal skating ability and getting rewarded for it. He can be a huge player for us."
The previously deferential Johansson, naturally a pass-first player, has been shooting the puck more this season, adhering to an edict issued by coach Barry Trotz.
His shot rate per 60 minutes at even strength has doubled (8.85 from 4.05 last season) and after his first multigoal performance since Jan. 9, 2012, he has already matched his eight-goal total from last season.
"He has that will, he wants to score a little bit more this year," Backstrom said. "I would say pretty much all-around, he's improved."
In particular, Johansson has been a revelation at even strength. Despite sharing the majority of his ice time with Backstrom and Alex Ovechkin during the previous two seasons, Johansson rarely scored, totaling five 5-on-5 goals in 114 games. The 24-year-old book-ended Washington's scoring Tuesday with his sixth and seventh even-strength goals of the season, which also leads the team and has been a boon for his confidence.
"Maybe it gives you an extra second to hold onto the puck before you shoot it or try to make a play," Johansson said. "I think confidence plays a big role in hockey. The more goals and points you get, the more confidence you get, but especially when the team wins, that really boosts your confidence."
A fruitful second-line partnership with rookie and fellow Swede Andre Burakovsky has certainly aided in Johansson's transition. When skating together, Johansson's Corsi-for percentage -- a measurement of on-ice shot differential -- is 55.6, compared to 45.7 when separated from Burakovsky. So too has more favorable deployment; Johansson is starting more shifts in the offensive zone and facing the weakest competition of his career so far.
Johansson has traditionally started fast before slowing down as the season progresses, so whether he maintains his current pace -- which would shatter his previous career-high in goals by 30 -- through the rest of the season will be key.
Regardless, his promising start has been the early surprise of the season.
"I think I've always said you work on everything," Johansson said. "Everything can still always get better. I think it's paying off a little bit. You get a couple bounces and it boosts your confidence a little bit and I think that's what's been going on a little bit. Hopefully, it can keep going."
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