The last time Justin Williams played in a postseason game in Raleigh, he skated off with the Stanley Cup.
The stakes aren’t quite that high — yet — for the Carolina Hurricanes, but the third game of their best-of-seven series with the Washington Capitals on Monday night does bring his career full circle.
Now, “Mr. Game 7” is ready for Game 3 — the first playoff game at PNC Arena in 10 years — and hoping to keep the Hurricanes from falling into a three-games-to-none hole.
“The anticipation of it is what’s getting people really excited, because a lot of people don’t really know what it is,” Williams said. “Everyone’s telling them how great [playoff hockey in Raleigh] is and how fun it is, and it is, but really it’s something you’ve got to experience for yourself. It being a while now, you can kind of sometimes forget and fall into that trap that we’ve talked about of normalcy. But it’s everything it’s cracked up to be.”
Williams had a lot to do with creating the reputation that had gone dormant during that decade-long drought. As a 24-year-old in 2006, he helped the Hurricanes win the Stanley Cup, and his empty-net goal in Game 7 stands as one of the enduring images in club history. He had been traded to Los Angeles when Carolina made its only postseason appearance since, in 2009.
In the second year of his return, he wants to make more memories during a series he called the “perfect storm” because of his strong ties to both franchises.
He spent just two seasons in Washington from 2015-17, and lost in the second round both years, but Capitals players and executives credit him for helping to lay the foundation of the team that last year won the Cup for the first time.
“He spoke when he needed to. But mostly it was his play,” Capitals winger T.J. Oshie said. “Any time the game, the pressure rose or the game got more intense, Justin — or ‘Stick,’ as we call him — he always seemed to be able to rise to the occasion. And he always seemed to elevate his play to match that pressure. And that’s something we all tried to emulate, you know. Last year some guys did a great job of doing that. But it is something special and something not every guy can do. And he’s one of those guys who can do it.”
Carolina brought him back last season on a two-year deal, and then selected him as captain this season.
“I don’t think leadership skills ... can be taught. You just be yourself,” Williams said. “Fortunately, I’ve been around a lot of great leaders, so I’ve taken little bits and pieces of what I like about them and kind of make it my own. One of the more important things is, you can’t fake being a leader. You can’t manufacture being a leader. You just are. And you’ve got to try and do what you can. You can’t be bashful about it. You believe in yourself, or you don’t.”
His teammates say that role suits him, and he’s instilled a level of accountability that perhaps wasn’t always present during a drought that ranked as one of the longest in NHL history.
He also backed up his occasionally harsh words on the ice, ranking second on the team with 23 goals and third with 53 points while helping Carolina close the regular season by going 31-12-2 in its final 45 regular-season games to climb from last place in the division to a wild-card playoff berth.
Yet he also kept things light, masterminding the “Storm Surge” postgame celebrations that took the league by storm.
“Just how vocal he is, how he demands a lot out of everybody ... he is not afraid to hurt anybody’s feelings,” forward Jordan Martinook said. “I think he’s figured out a very, very good way, and he’s a very good motivator. Very good guy to follow because he’s done it so many times, and to see his success in the playoffs and even our ... stretch to the end of the year. You see the goals he scores, they’re big goals. It’s an easy guy to jump on his back.”
Williams has thrived throughout his career in Game 7s, owning the NHL record with 14 points in those games and scoring seven goals to tie the mark held by 15-year veteran Glenn Anderson. His teams are 7-1 in those games — hence, the “Mr. Game 7” nickname.
The Hurricanes have a lot to do to force this one-sided series to a seventh game, but if it should get to that point, they’ll be glad they have Williams, just as the Capitals were during their two years with him.
“He has the right blend of leadership, have fun, compete,” Capitals GM Brian MacLellan said. “He really senses the tone of an organization, of a team, where they are at in the games and playoffs and he provides — and he did provide us with that leadership, and he is doing the same thing at Carolina now, so he’s just a great guy to have on your team.”