ARLINGTON, Va. (AP) Justin Williams tore ligaments in his left knee (twice), tore the Achilles tendon in his right leg and broke his right ankle – all before he turned 28. Even though he had won a Stanley Cup with the Carolina Hurricanes in 2006, it’s no wonder the Los Angeles Kings wondered if Williams was damaged goods.
“He was battling those injuries so we never really knew how he was going to pan out,” former Kings teammate Drew Doughty said. “Then he starts getting healthy and playing more and more and we saw the reason why he’s a Stanley Cup champion and why he’s such an effective player.”
Two more Cup rings and a Conn Smythe Trophy as playoff MVP later, Williams is no longer the injury-prone risk he feared he’d become. He hasn’t missed a game in his first season with the Washington Capitals and on Sunday is set to play his 1,000th regular-season contest.
That milestone is a testament to Williams’ longevity, especially considering he has made a name for himself as “Mr. Game 7” and a playoff performer. His time to shine comes next week, but not before the 34-year-old got a chance to reflect on the career he fashioned for himself.
“You figure out what you can do and what you can’t do on the ice with regards to hitting, with regards to evading checks, with regards to making plays,” said Williams, whose major injuries occurred in 2003, 2007, 2008 and 2009. “Throughout my career I’ve learned about the body, learned about what you need to do on the ice and I’ve been able to stay healthy because of it.”
Since returning from a dislocated shoulder in 2011, Williams has only missed one game – Nov. 6, 2014, with an upper-body injury. Most hockey players go through more injury woes after 30, but not Williams, who credits smarts and good athletic training.
“You go as hard as you can on the ice when you’re on there,” Williams said. “Pacing yourself is listening to your body and knowing when you need rest, knowing when to take an optional, knowing that you need a good stretch here and there – just little things like that that elongate your career. People say, `Stretch your legs, stretch your career.”‘
Williams hasn’t just been healthy, he’s been more effective in playoffs than the regular season. He has averaged 0.68 points a game in the playoffs, including seven goals and seven assists in seven Game 7s – and his team is 7-0.
Mike Richards, who won the Cup alongside Williams with the Kings in 2012 and 2014, said the veteran winger’s contributions aren’t limited to one situation.
“It’s not just Game 7, it’s any big game any time that we need them – even throughout the season any time we need a big game,” Richards said. “He might like the spotlight. He likes being that guy. It’s good for him and it’s well-deserved.”
Williams also has had a solid regular season. His 22 goals are the most he’s put up since 2006-07 and his 52 points are the most since 2011-12.
Williams has been a fixture on the Capitals’ second line and provided a valuable net-front presence.
“The people around him know he’s a tremendous work-ethic guy out there, he tries to win every battle, in front of the net he’s outstanding and you can see how many goals he’s scored in front of the net,” captain Alex Ovechkin said. “I think he’s a perfect fit for our team, perfect guy in the locker room. He’s the kind of guy who knows exactly what he has to do.”
Williams has game No. 999 left Saturday at the St. Louis Blues before 1,000 can happen Sunday against the Anaheim Ducks. So the Cobourg, Ontario, native has been around the game long enough that he’s not taking reaching Sunday healthy for granted.
“What I’ve kind of tried to do throughout my career is set goals for myself and when I meet that goal try and get another one,” Williams said. “A thousand games is certainly on that list and something that hopefully I can get to here … and think about playoffs after that.”