Through the first month of the season, Justin Williams had fewer points than Stanley Cup rings.
The three-time Cup champion and 2014 Conn Smythe Trophy winner as playoff MVP had two points in his first 15 games for the Washington Capitals and he knew he was struggling.
"It's easy to sulk your head and slump your shoulders and to say, 'Woe is me,' and it's really hard to puff your shoulders out and own it and just say, 'I'm under a slump a little bit,'" Williams said. "That's what I tried to do."
It would have been easy to think the game had passed the grey-bearded, 35-year-old winger by. But Williams has 17 points in 22 games since that rough start and has served as an example to his younger teammates about how to handle individual struggles.
Williams had a goal and two assists in the Capitals' 6-5 overtime win over the Toronto Maple Leafs on Tuesday, his first three-point game in almost a full calendar year. As Capitals captain Alex Ovechkin put it, "He's still got it."
"I hope so," Williams said with a laugh. "I'm still in the league. I need to."
Washington is counting on Williams for production along with the leadership he brings in his 16th NHL season. With Ovechkin 31 and several players' contracts – including Williams's – up this summer, it could be the Capitals' last, best crack at the Cup championship that has eluded the franchise, especially during this era that has produced eight playoff appearances and zero trips beyond the second round.
For now, as the Capitals try to keep pace in the competitive Metropolitan Division, it's no coincidence that they're 14-5-3 since Williams turned things around with nine goals and eight assists. Washington will try to snap the Columbus Blue Jackets' 16-game winning streak Thursday night, and Williams will be counted on to produce.
"We need him getting on the scoresheet," right winger T.J. Oshie said. "Our depth is one of our strengths, and when he's going and that line's going, that's another thing [opponents] have to worry about."
Williams's line, which includes Marcus Johansson and Evgeny Kuznetsov, has taken the pressure off Ovechkin, Oshie and Nicklas Backstrom. He has finally found some chemistry and a place in the lineup after coach Barry Trotz moved Williams up and down, trying to spark more production.
All the while, Trotz liked what he saw out of Williams and told him so. The 1,037-game veteran listened.
"He knows how to not let the game chew him up when things aren't going really well," Trotz said. "He's responded and I think he's getting rewarded for all the good, hard work that he's put in. Even when he wasn't rewarded, I think you just stick with it."
Coincidentally, Williams's nickname predating his time with the Capitals is "Stick," which has more to do with his skinny physique than anything else. But teammates admire how he has been sticking with his on-ice work and never showed his frustration with just a goal and an assist early.
"It's just unbelievable leadership, I think, and it shows his value to the team," Johansson said. "He comes in every day and works hard and does the right things. He doesn't come in with his chin down or anything like that. He's always happy and the same guy and keeps pushing forward."
Williams didn't put together his long NHL career from humble beginnings in tiny Cobourg, Ont., by letting slumps or devastating injuries derail him. He tore ligaments in his left knee twice, tore the Achilles tendon in his right leg and broke his right ankle all by 28, so a little cold streak was nothing.
He knows he's getting some fortunate bounces, such as a shot that went in off his skate Tuesday, and he'll take them.
"It's just kind of the way hockey goes sometimes," Williams said. "Sometimes you feel you play great and you look at the scoresheet and you got no points and you're minus-2. Sometimes it just works that way. I'm happy to be contributing, because I know this team needs me to do so."