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Johnsson gives Leafs top-six option out of the blue

Johnsson gives Leafs top-six option out of the blue
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That isn’t on his mind, though, as the winger focuses on his key role with the Maple Leafs in their first-round playoff series with the Boston Bruins.

As a rookie, Johnsson has run into myriad challenges and solved them on the way to becoming an indispensable part of the Leafs’ top six up front.

After a slow start to training camp, and some pointed words from Leafs coach Mike Babcock about protecting the puck better, Johnsson played his way onto the Auston Matthews line ahead of William Nylander. Johnsson passed Nylander in one key area: using his speed and strength on puck retrieval and positioning in front of the opposition’s net.

After Johnsson scored nine goals in February, Babcock felt even more confident about playing him with Matthews and Kasperi Kapanen. That offensive surge put him at least in the discussion about potential finalists for rookie of the year. The Calder is considered a lock for Vancouver Canucks sensation Elias Pettersson, but Johnsson finished fourth in rookie scoring with 43 points, and third in goals with 20.

Like most rookies, he was streaky. Johnsson, like Kapanen, managed just one goal over the final 15 games of the season. But both continued to skate with Matthews, who was also being asked to raise his game to another level down the stretch.

Johnsson had the best post-season game of his career in Monday’s Game 3 win over the Bruins, scoring a goal on the power play and setting up another with a wonderful pass through the slot.

With Nazem Kadri suspended for the rest of the series, for a cross-check in Game 2, Babcock assigned Johnsson to take over Kadri’s spot in the high slot on the first power-play unit. Johnsson had experience with the man advantage at other levels — dating back to 2014, when he was voted rookie of the year in the Swedish Hockey League. Last spring, he was a power-play fixture in the Marlies’ run to the Calder Cup and named playoff MVP, despite missing the early part of the AHL post-season when the Leafs called him up.

His power-play goal in Monday’s 3-2 win was largely the result of chemistry with centre John Tavares. Asked if he called for the puck from Tavares because he was open and in close, Johnsson said, “No, (Tavares) just knew.”

Heading into Wednesday night at Scotiabank Arena, the Matthews-Johnsson-Kapanen unit has been winning the matchup with Boston’s second line: David Krejci between Jake DeBrusk and Karson Kuhlman (replaced by Marcus Johansson for Game 4).

The formula for success has been simple: work harder than the Bruins, at both ends of the ice.

“Krejci, DeBrusk, they have a great line … They have speed, skill. They’ve got grit … You’ve got to play with intensity and try to hold puck as much as possible, because the other line is not as good when they don’t control the puck,” Johnsson said.

“Put it down deep, so they have to get down and skate there, make them work.”

Johnsson’s ability to become a factor on the Matthews line has gone somewhat underrated, while the all-star centre has shown signs of raising his game to another level in the playoffs with Johnsson on his wing.

“We want to be more dominant, have the puck even more, create more offence, (be) good in our own zone, communicating,” Matthews said.

“I think that’s been a big key for us — just communicating in all three zones. Not just as a line, but as a five-man unit and with (goalie Frederik Andersen). Be sure you’re talking and there for each other and having (good habits) all over the ice.”
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