BALLSTON, VA - There were whispers that 38-year old Mike Knuble had lost a step during an early season slump. The Washington Capitals' elder statesman had just three goals heading into December, and for a time it appeared his streak of seven consecutive season with 20 goals or more would be coming to an end.
However, a red hot month of March alleviated all concerns that Knuble was on his last legs as he posted 12 points, including an overtime game-winner against the Chicago Blackhawks on March 13. He hit the 20-goal mark for the eighth straight year and appears primed to help lead the Capitals into the Stanley Cup playoffs.
"I think I've [always] had strong Marches," Knuble said. "You know, the month of March has been good to me the last few years, and I don't know why that is. But I seem to do a little better later in the season, and that's the most important time to be feeling well is at the end of the year."
While the Capitals oldest player experienced a resurgence in March, the team's youngest player also finally found his feet. Twenty-year old Marcus Johansson began to display more of his dynamic potential as a skater and a playmaker, finishing with nine points in March.
Bruce Boudreau was looking for more consistency in Johansson's game, and he delivered, especially with a key game-tying goal in the third period on the road in Philadelphia. The Capitals went on to win the game in a shootout and Johansson took a huge step in the right direction as a legitimate contributor on one of the NHL's hottest teams.
"As a young player, when you come over, it takes a little while to get some confidence and do the things that he does well. The things he does well [are that] he skates and he likes to carry the puck," Knuble said. "I think he's even shown some more offensive upside than we got to see earlier in the year, and that just comes with confidence and games played."
Johansson also alluded to the fact that confidence has played a key role in his development.
"It's been better and better all the time," he said. "As I've said a lot of times, the more you get to play, the more confident you get. You get to know the game more. So it feels pretty good."
While he is slowly adjusting to the North American game, Johansson is far from satisfied. Hunger is a young player's best asset, and he possesses it in spades.
"I want to be better at everything that's just the way it is," he told me. "I can't say there's this and that I want to get better at, because I want to improve every part of my game. That's how I see it."
Count Knuble as a believer in Johansson.
"I think it's come a little bit easier for him in the last little bit, [but] it's good that he realizes it's not always like that," Knuble that. "There's going to be times where you're up and you're down and there's always room to improve, so you can never stop improving as a player. I think those guys that think they don't have to prove [anything] anymore are done pretty quick. So it's a good attitude to have."
Success can prove elusive in sports, and Johansson's realization of this fact plus his dedication towards becoming a better player could combine to help him succeed on the highest level in the NHL playoffs.
"It's going to be a lot of fun," he said of what will be his first playoff experience. "Going into that type of hockey and the whole atmosphere of playoff hockey, it's going to be amazing. [I'm] going to enjoy every day and make it last a long time."
To mount a serious postseason run, the Capitals will not only require solid pivot play from Johansson, but more goal scoring from around the crease by Jason Arnott, Brooks Laich and, of course, Knuble. The Capitals have been crashing the net with increased frequency and the results have been positive.
"They're not pretty goals off the rush, but [Alexander] Semin's goal [against Buffalo] was scored from the crease, and Arnott's goal was right around the crease too," Knuble said. "It takes a lot of effort to find loose pucks in there and that's how you're going to score goals at this time of the year, with the ugly goals and pile ups in front of the net."
Knuble is all too familiar with the grinder mentality needed to score goals in the playoffs, and the younger players will look to him in the coming months for guidance both on and off the ice. He has established himself once again as a leading voice in the locker room and his teammates hold him in high regard.
"He's going all the time and I think that's what's great," Johansson said. "He's been great for this team the whole year and he contributes all the time and he's just a guy this team needs."
Fellow rookie John Carlson marveled at how well Knuble has maintained such consistency throughout his career.
"Not too many people can [score 20+ goals eight straight times] especially getting so much older," he said. "I see him still being able to produce. It's not his first eight seasons that he did it, it's his last eight. That's just a testament to what he is and how hard he works and it's a great thing."
Like Johansson, Carlson is having a prolific rookie year and one that will likely merit consideration for the Calder Trophy as the NHL's top rookie. While Johansson has struggled at points, Carlson has often made his inaugural season appear effortless.
Yet that doesn't mean it's been easy. Carlson said he and Johansson are still soaking up all they can from the older players on the team.
"We're the youngest guys on the team and there's so many grizzly vets that have been around forever and know what's it's like and what goes on to make an NHL career successful," he said. "We come to the rink everyday and we look at these guys and we want to be a Mike Knuble, we want to be a guy like that who's been around forever and is a huge leader and a huge part of our team."
This may be Knuble's last shot at a Stanley Cup with the Capitals, since his contract expires at the end of the season. He has invested everything in helping make them a more battle-tested team, and is pleased with the mixture of youth and experience contained on the roster.
Yet with the playoffs a week away, Knuble knows the mark of the Capitals will be made based on their postseason exploits, which haven't been good in recent seasons.
"Everybody's a year older, a year wiser," he said. "I think last year's first round was very humbling and it opened a lot of players' eyes. They don't want to duplicate that feeling this spring."
With more efforts like those from Knuble and Johansson, there will be no such duplication. The Caps are receiving key contributions at the perfect time from a veteran and a rookie, and the balance on display might be enough to kiss postseason futility goodbye.