Swedish bruisers. (Photo credit: Len Redkoles)
Over the past season, we’ve seen Marcus Johansson go from a talented set-up man into the Caps third leading goal scorer. Andre Burakovsky has gone from an 19-year-old babyfaced rookie into, for a while, the team’s top-line right wing. In the past two weeks, those two have added more facets to their game. In the 2015 playoffs, Johansson and Burakovsky have become physical forces on the ice. But instead of going for needless checks that only put them out of position as so many players do, Marcus and Andre pick their spots, using their bodies to bump opponents off the puck or maintain possession.
“You never want to approach a game looking for hits,” Brooks Orpik, who was third in the league in that stat during the regular season, told me Wednesday. “If you do that you’re gonna be out of position.”
“We can’t try to be a skill team all the time,” he added. “If you are a big team, you have to use that to your advantage.”
Under new head coach Barry Trotz, Washington has pushed that style all year. These are no longer the run-and-gun Caps. With the offseason signings of Orpik and Matt Niskanen and the trade deadline acquisition of Tim Gleason, the Capitals have adopted a bruising method of D-zone play. The NHL’s heaviest team by weight, Washington had two players in the top 10 in hits in the regular season, with two others in the top 31.
“I think you see it all throughout our lineup,” Orpik said. “That’s what you need. You can’t 14 or 15 guys playing one way and four or five playing another. ”
As the playoffs have rolled around, those few holdouts have been converted. Johansson, normally a high-flying skill player, has looked like a pinball most nights during the postseason. His 24 credited hits have been beneficial for the Capitals, often helping them regain possession. He has also made excellent counter hits to keep the puck in Washington’s hands.
“It’s the playoffs and everyone has to do that,” Tom Wilson said of Johansson. “He’s stepped up big time and added that to his game. He’s sneaky strong.”
“He’s so fast he can create the space and finish his checks quickly without them getting ready for it,” Wilson added.
In addition to Johansson, Burakovsky, a fellow Swede, has altered his game as well. In game three, he set up the lone goal by bouncing top Rangers defensemen Dan Girardi off the puck before making an excellent backhand pass to Jay Beagle for the goal.
“If you finish your checks, you will get the puck back I would say around 70 percent of the time,” Burakovsky said. “That’s gonna be a key for the team to win. If we finish our checks all the time, we’ll get the puck back all the time.”
“[T]he D remember next time like ‘Oh shit, he’s coming hard at me!’ and then he’s just gonna throw away the puck and not make a play,” he added.
For Burakovsky, the change is especially impressive. At 19-years-old, this is his first season in the NHL. Just two years ago, he was playing Swedish junior hockey.
— Ian Oland (@ianoland) April 24, 2015
“It’s a completely different game,” Johansson, who came over to North America in 2010, said of playing in Europe on larger rinks. “He’s getting better and better every game. He’s doing the right things. He makes his plays when they’re there.”
While Johansson credited Burakovsky’s improvement on playing time, Wilson was a little more selfish. The foundation, he said, for Burakovsky’s newfound skills was acquired by being roommates with him and Michael Latta.
“We’ve been giving a hard time around the house,” Wilson said. “He’ll chirp something and then we’ll have to put him back in his place. He’ll fight back. We’re getting him ready for what goes on in the playoffs.”
When asked about Wilson’s claim, Burakovsky chuckled.
“We have have a lot of wrestling matches in our place,” he told me.
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