Williams ready for Canes’ first home playoff game in decade

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RALEIGH, N.C. — 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.”

Hurricanes’ Justin Williams scores with face, then scores with stick

Go to the net and good things will happen. Coaches tell players that all the time with the hope that good positioning will result in a goal. Justin Williams learned that the hard way Thursday night, joining a club that Connor Garland of the Arizona Coyotes entered earlier this season.

As the Carolina Hurricanes continue chasing one of the Eastern Conference’s wild card spots, they visited the Florida Panthers and opened the scoring in unusual fashion.

Just a few minutes into the first period, Brett Pesce sent a shot toward the Panthers’ net and it ended up deflecting off Williams’ face and past James Reimer into the Florida net. Williams, as you see, crumpled to the ice in a scary scene.

Williams would leave the game with blood dripping from his face and return only a few minutes. Later in the game the Hurricanes captain, with a nostril full of gauze, would use his stick to score and snap a 3-3 tie:

That second goal would stand as the winner and give the Hurricanes a 4-3 victory and help them move past the Columbus Blue Jackets for the Eastern Conference’s final wild card.

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Sean Leahy is a writer for Pro Hockey Talk on NBC Sports. Drop him a line at phtblog@nbcsports.com or follow him on Twitter @Sean_Leahy.

Washington Capitals ’15-16 Outlook

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The easy answer, of course, is to get past the second round.

It’s a place Washington hasn’t been since the ’98 Stanley Cup Final which, when you consider what’s transpired in the aftermath, is a really long time ago. Six coaches have come and gone — Ron Wilson, Bruce Cassidy, Glen Hanlon, Bruce Boudreau, Dale Hunter, Adam Oates — and seven different captains have served.

All told, it’s seventeen years and counting without a trip past Round 2, a drought Barry Trotz wants to end.

“Last year was a foundational year for us,” the Caps’ head coach told the National Press Club in July. “We want to have a parade down one of these great streets.”

To achieve that goal, Caps GM Brian MacLellan went out and had himself a splashy summer — well, as splashy as someone with his financial constraints could, anyway. Despite hovering close to the cap ceiling, MacLellan accomplished his goal of adding quality wingers in Justin Williams and T.J. Oshie.

The sophomoric analysis and narrative is that Williams, a former Conn Smythe winner dubbed “Mr. Game 7,” would help the team win important playoff games. Oshie, the U.S. Olympic hero in Sochi, would thrive in the nation’s capital, while wearing stars n’ stripes while riding an eagle (or something like that).

The reality is a tad more complex.

Despite boasting the NHL’s sixth-best offense in ’14-15, the Caps’ forward group didn’t exactly set the world on fire. Alex Ovechkin was responsible for a whopping 22 percent of the team’s goals, and two of the teams’ top-five point-getters were defensemen. The hope is that Williams and Oshie will balance things out — especially on right wing, where the likes of Jay Beagle and Tom Wilson were briefly parachuted in.

“You don’t like to see revolving players go through that spot all year,” MacLellan told the Washington Post. “You’d like to have more stability where a guy’s there permanently or almost permanently.”

To be fair, it’s likely that MacLellan made the Williams and Oshie moves with an eye on the playoffs. Williams’ postseason exploits are, as mentioned above, well-documented and while Oshie doesn’t have much of a reputation for playoff performances, he could be viewed as a more talented/gifted goalscorer/gamebreaker than the guy he replaced (Troy Brouwer).

In the postseason, that’s a big deal; do remember that in blowing their 3-1 series lead on the Rangers last season, the Caps only mustered five goals over the final three games.

So to sum it up, the outlook for next season is the same outlook we’ve seen in years prior. Can they finally get over that playoff hump?

Or come springtime, will it be the same old Caps?

Capitals’ biggest question: Is this finally the year?

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Of the 12 NHL teams that have never won the Stanley Cup, there may not be a more optimistic one heading into 2015-16 than the Washington Capitals. 

Here’s why:

— Alex Ovechkin just won his third straight Rocket Richard Trophy. At 29, he remains the NHL’s most dangerous goal-scorer. On top of that, the Caps appear to have found the right coach for the Russian superstar in Barry Trotz.

— The Caps also appear to have found a second-line center in young Evgeny Kuznetsov. If the 23-year-old continues to progress — and there’s no good reason he shouldn’t — Washington could have quite the 1-2 combo at center in Nicklas Backstrom and Kuznetsov.

— Defenseman John Carlson is emerging as one of the top blue-liners in the NHL. And at 25, he may get even better.

— Goalie Braden Holtby continues to post strong numbers. His .923 save percentage last season was tied with Pekka Rinne and one point better than Tuukka Rask.

Now throw in the additions of veterans T.J. Oshie and Justin Williams to go with youngsters Marcus Johansson, Andre Burakovsky and Tom Wilson, and what emerges is a roster where a glaring weakness is pretty tough to find.

OK, sure, there are concerns. Like maybe the Caps will miss Mike Green more than they think. Ditto for Joel Ward, Troy Brouwer and/or Eric Fehr. If Washington’s young players don’t step up next season, it’s hard to picture this team hoisting the Cup.

But that’s true of any team, really.

“I’d say the next three or four years is the window,” GM Brian MacLellan said in May.

Given how quickly the landscape of a young man’s league can change, it may turn out to be a shorter window than that.

The Caps have a real opportunity in 2015-16. Can they finally get it done?

Related: Green calls this year’s Caps ‘the best team we’ve had overall’

Looking to make the leap: Tom Wilson

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The numbers from Tom Wilson’s first two seasons in Washington pretty much explain his role.

Hits: 402

Penalty minutes: 323

Fights: 26

Goals: 7

While Wilson’s been effective as the energy-slash-enforcer guy, it’s probably not the role most imagined when the Caps made him the 16th overall pick in 2012. Taken ahead of the likes of Tomas Hertl and Teuvo Teravainen, the big-bodied Wilson — 6-foot-4, 210 pounds — should be able to do more.

Just ask his head coach.

“Willie is one of my favorites,” Barry Trotz told the Washington Post this offseason. “I think he’s got a great upside, but at the same time I don’t see him as a fourth line winger for the Washington Capitals.

“To me, he’s better than that.”

Wilson has appeared in plenty of games — only four players from his draft class have been in more — but hasn’t really played all that much, averaging 7:56 per game in his rookie year, then 10:56 as a sophomore, all of it in a predominantly fourth-line role. Part of that is age, having just turned 21 in March, and part of that stems from ex-head coach Adam Oates, who thrust Wilson into the muscle role to compensate for what he saw as a lack of team toughness.

Trotz, though, sees something more.

He gave Wilson top-line minutes last year alongside Alex Ovechkin and Nicklas Backstrom and while the promotion was brief, it provided insight into what Trotz thinks of Wilson’s potential — a big-bodied power forward that can physically punish opponents and produce offensively.

“My goal will be pretty simple with Tom,” Trotz said, per CSN Washington. “Tom needs to elevate his game. We’ll talk about all those areas of where he can and how he’s going to do it and where we see him needing to get to.”

But is this the year it happens?

There is competition for top-six minutes, especially at wing. Washington’s added some veteran talent in Justin Williams and T.J. Oshie, meaning Wilson, a pending RFA, may not get a shot at his breakthrough until 2016-17.

Or perhaps beyond.

“We want to get Wilson more ice time next year. We need to bump him,” Caps GM Brian MacLellan said. “Maybe not next year, but the year after, we have to turn him into a top-six forward.

“We just need him making more plays, doing more with the puck, contributing offensively, and I think we can get that out of him.”