RALEIGH, N.C. — Justin Williams had been through enough battles in the Stanley Cup Playoffs to know the lovefest between him and the Washington Capitals wouldn’t last.
So the Carolina Hurricanes forward rolled his eyes at the Capitals’ suggestions before the Eastern Conference First Round began that he played a role in them winning the Stanley Cup last season, though he was no longer a member of their team.
“I’m not going to make this a kumbaya type thing,” the Carolina captain said.
No one on either team was singing Kumbaya during or after the Hurricanes’ 5-0 win against the Capitals in Game 3 of the best-of-7 series on Monday. Emotions have become more heated over the course of the series, which the Capitals lead 2-1 with Game 4 at PNC Arena on Thursday (7 p.m. ET; SN360, TVAS, FS-CR, NBCSWA).
Game 3 was a scrum-filled affair that included Williams and Capitals forward Tom Wilson jostling and exchanging words during one post-whistle get-together in the second period. Wilson has credited Williams with taking him under his wing during Williams’ two seasons with the Capitals and they remain friends, but as Williams noted again after the game on Monday, old friendships don’t matter in the playoffs.
“Not for a couple weeks,” Williams said. “Nope.”
Though there will be handshakes and hugs when the series is over, Williams is doing everything he can do make sure the Hurricanes come out on the winning side of that line. A three-time Stanley Cup winner, including with the Hurricanes in 2006, the 37-year-old is the unquestioned leader in a locker room that includes 11 players who made their NHL postseason debuts in this series.
“Leadership’s huge in our sport for a lot of reasons, but I think one of them is the experience factor,” Hurricanes coach Rod Brind’Amour said. “Just being able when you’re a young guy to look over at someone when things seem to be going crazy and he’s smiling or laughing or says the right thing, everyone [thinks], ‘Oh, I guess this is normal.’ That’s kind of how it’s been for us with him and he’s a perfect leader for this group.”
A veteran of 143 playoff games with 95 postseason points (36 goals, 59 assists) over his 18 NHL seasons, Williams knows the ups and downs of a series as well as anyone. After winning the Cup with the Hurricanes, he was traded to the Los Angeles Kings in 2009 and won it again with them in 2012 and 2014.
“Obviously, he’s been there,” said Sebastian Aho, a 21-year-old forward and potentially Williams’ eventual successor as Hurricanes captain. “He’s done it three times, so he knows what to do and what to say when the time comes.”
Williams also won the Conn Smythe Trophy as the most valuable player in the playoffs in 2014, when he had 25 points (nine goals, 16 assists) in 26 playoff games for the Kings, and his reputation as a clutch performer was the main reason the Capitals signed him as an unrestricted free agent in 2015. He earned the moniker “Mr. Game 7” with his 14 points (seven goals, seven assists) and 7-0 record in Game 7s before getting to Washington; the Capitals thought they needed someone like him to help them get over the hump in their pursuit of the Cup.
They were eliminated by the Pittsburgh Penguins in the Eastern Conference Second Round in each of Williams’ two seasons with them, including a 2-0 Game 7 loss in 2017, but many of them believe the lessons they learned from him were factors in them winning the Cup last season without him.
“He was obviously one of those guys that brought a level of professionalism here and a guy that knows how to win,” Capitals goalie Braden Holtby said. “You watch him play, he doesn’t take a night off. He shows up for every game. One of those guys that you listen to when he talks. He’s just naturally a leader.”
Williams signed a two-year contract with Carolina as an unrestricted free agent on July 1, 2017, but with the Hurricanes not in the playoffs last season, he followed his friends in Washington closely during their Stanley Cup run.
“Very closely. Everything,” Williams said. “I’m a fan of the game also, but also last year was a fan of them.”
After Washington won the Cup with a 4-3 win against the Vegas Golden Knights in Game 5 of the Stanley Cup Final, Williams texted his congratulations to a few of his former teammates. Though the Capitals partied into the early morning hours in Las Vegas following that Game 5 win, some decided to show their appreciation to Williams via a FaceTime call.
“He reached out to a couple of us and he gave his congratulations and said he was happy for us,” Capitals forward T.J. Oshie said. “He’s just an overall good person, so I wouldn’t expect less of him.”
The Capitals can see firsthand the impact Williams has had on the Hurricanes in his first season as their captain. After failing to qualify for the playoffs for nine consecutive seasons, the Hurricanes are back in the postseason and giving the defending champions all they can handle.
Williams has one assist in the first three games of the series, but as the Capitals know well, his contributions go well beyond points.
“He’s a winner,” Oshie said. “He demands a lot out of his teammates because he gives a lot to the team, and he’s in a position to do that. He doesn’t take nights off. Every night he wants to be the best player on the ice and he tries to be the best player on the ice. That bleeds through teams and just that kind of winning mentality and never-give-up mentality that he brings every night, I think guys pick up on that, especially young players.”
Regardless of who wins the series, the Capitals will remain grateful for Williams’ time as their teammate and how it paid off for them last season. But Williams put all of that aside before the puck was dropped in Game 1.
“Obviously, I have a lot of respect for what they did last year, and I have a lot of really good friends on that team,” Williams said. “I was very happy for them, but that was last year.”