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Marcus In The Middle

January 9, 2014

Left wing Jason Chimera and right wing Joel Ward have played on the same line together for the entirety of the 2013-14 season, and the two were also frequently paired together over the previous two seasons, since Ward joined the Capitals at the start of the 2011-12 campaign.


They’ve played for three different coaches and at least as many systems over that span, but they’ve played together so much and have developed such a chemistry together that they joke about being brothers.


This season, Caps coach Adam Oates has flipped the wings around on his various forward line combinations. Most Washington wingers have played with a few different centers and several different wingers as well.


Not Chimera and Ward. Aside from the odd shift here and there, they’ve played with each other exclusively this season in 5-on-5 play, although they have played with a handful of different pivots.


At Monday’s practice, Chimera and Ward had a new – at least for this season – middle man in Marcus Johansson. Although Johansson has manned the middle of a unit with Chimera and Ward at times in the past, he has spent most of the last two seasons playing left wing on Washington’s top line with Nicklas Backstrom and Alex Ovechkin.


Tonight in Tampa Bay, the Caps will roll out that Chimera-Johansson-Ward trio in a game for the first time this season.


“It’s going to be fun,” says Johansson. “I like playing with both Chimmer and Wardo. They’re two guys who are really easy to play with and they keep the game simple. They work so hard and they’re both good skaters and they’re strong on the puck. They can make plays as well. You’ve got everything. And they keep it simple and work so hard. It makes it really easy to play with them and really fun, too. They’ve been playing really good this year and they’ve been great for us. It’s going to be fun playing with them.”


The tandem of Chimera and Ward has been a panacea to whichever center has been placed between them this season. Most players put in that spot have gotten well in a hurry, and then they’ve moved along to their next assignment. It can be argued that several of them have played their best hockey of the season with Chimera and Ward.


“I think it’s a chance for guys just to really simplify their games when they’re with us,” says Chimera. “Even when I play with [Alex Ovechkin] I feel like I look for him a little too much maybe, you try to look for these guys instead of playing your own game. We just tell guys, ‘Just chip it in and go, let’s go get it.’ We play very simple and I think that benefits a lot of guys.


“Me and Wardo have been doing a good job of spending time in their end most of the year, and I think it’s been pretty productive so far. When you spend some minutes in other people’s end, good things happen. I know we don’t try to do anything extra. We make plays; but at the bluelines if we don’t have a play, we’re getting it deep and we’re going to go to work. Sometimes dumbing your game down helps you out and you don’t have to think too much, just go out there and play. That’s what it is with us. We’re not very complicated folk. We just keep doing the same thing.”


Johansson isn’t really in need of the emergent care that doctors Chimera and Ward have provided this season. Now in his fourth NHL season, Johansson has upped his points-per-game figure for the fourth straight season and he is fourth on the team in scoring with 28 points (six goals, 22 assists).


“Marcus has got tremendous speed and good skill, obviously,” says Ward. “He’s just got to adapt to the green line [third line] level. He’s going to have to slow it down for us and make some plays. We feel like we’ve had a revolving door of centermen coming in and out, but it’s good to be with him and he can definitely make plays. For us, it’s no secret. We’ve got to get him the puck as soon as we can, especially in the neutral zone to let him skate with it. For us, our job is just to get in on the forecheck and just fish pucks out for him and try to get open.”


Caps coach Adam Oates moved Brooks Laich up to the left side of a line with Nicklas Backstrom and Troy Brouwer, where Johansson had been skating. Washington’s other scoring line is currently comprised of Eric Fehr, Mikhail Grabovski and Ovechkin. The idea behind splitting up Backstrom and Ovechkin is to force opposing coaches to split up their defensive coverage against those lines.


A side benefit might turn out to be a productive third unit.


“I think it’s a good thing for Jojo,” says Chimera. “Sometimes when you play with Ovi and Backy you tend to look for those guys a little too much. With Jojo he doesn’t have to stop his speed, just keep on going and use his speed to his advantage. Just chip and go get it.  Don’t slow down. That’s one of our biggest things. I’ve told Wardo before, ‘Let’s not slow ourselves down, let’s keep going and try to keep it going north as much as possible.’


“I think it benefits a lot of people when you simplify things that way. Don’t slow yourself down, chip it to yourself and then go get it and we’ll redirect after that. We don’t really care about if you’re a center or a wing or whatever position you play, just go get the puck and we’ll fill in for where you guys are. Each one of us can play down low in our zone too, so it’s not like that’s an issue. It’s one of those things where if we’re first back I’ll go low and we’ll just cover for each other that way. Just kind of redirect off each other and don’t slow down.”


The Chimera-Johansson-Ward trio has actually combined for more goals this season (25) than the Laich-Backstrom-Brouwer threesome (23). Five of Johansson’s six tallies have come on the power play, and 15 of his 28 points have come while Washington has enjoyed the man advantage.


Coming into this season, Johansson had six goals and nine assists for 15 points on the power play in 183 career games. He has matched that extra-man point total in just 42 games this season.


Johansson is also moving back to his natural center position, a switch that leads to some more responsibility in the defensive end of the ice.


“I think it’s mostly in your own end that it’s different,” notes Johansson. “You have to work more around your own net and try to be strong there and help out your defensemen as much as you can. That’s where it changes the most from being a winger is in your own end. I’m still going to try to play my game and play my game a little better. All of us can step up a little bit here. Even though we’ve played good the last couple of games, we have to find a way to win the games.”


Chimera has been Johansson’s teammate since he came into the league in 2010-11 and he has witnessed some growth in the Swedish forward’s game.


“I think just maturity,” says Chimera. “He’s a little more mature and I think he’s stronger on the puck than before. The first playoff series, I think he got pushed off the puck a lot and I think he kind of realized what kind of hockey he’d need to play to win here. Especially this year, he has protected the puck a lot better and he has taken on some of the big guys.


“Playing with Ovi every night, he sees the best defensemen every night. He’s very strong on the puck now, he doesn’t give it up as easy and he’s strong down low. He’s also using his speed to his advantage down low, spinning off people and creating a lot more plays for himself and he’s getting a lot more opportunities, too.”


“He’s got tremendous speed, obviously,” says Ward. “He’s got great poise with the puck and he can make plays. I think Backy has taken him under his wing. They’ve been playing together for a while and you can see the plays they make together; they’ve got really good chemistry.


“We have all the faith in Jojo to make some nice plays. We’ve just got to get open. You can tell he is a lot more confident about securing the puck from whichever hand and playing in the [defensive] zone and making plays out of his own zone, the breakout. He’s been good on the walls, but now he’s playing center. We’re just going to help him fight for draws and just do the little things and try to make his game as easy as possible.”