‘Mr. Game 7’ scores again: The everyman at helm of Carolina Hurricanes

Why We Wrote This

Sometimes being the best isn’t as important as being what’s needed in a given moment. That principle was on display during Wednesday night’s NHL playoff game as the Carolina Hurricanes eliminated the Washington Capitals.

Gerry Broome/AP
Jordan Staal (r.), Justin Williams (c.), and Justin Faulk (l.) of the Carolina Hurricanes celebrate Mr. Staal's goal against the Washington Capitals during the third period of Game 6 of an NHL hockey first-round playoff series in Raleigh, N.C., April 22.

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Justin Williams isn’t what you would call a profound talent. The captain of the Carolina Hurricanes has instead the kind of grit recognizable instantly to middle managers, line cooks, and fishermen. But on Wednesday night Mr. Williams proved – once again – that he’s exactly what his team needs in a pinch, scoring the decisive goal in Round 1 of the Stanley Cup playoffs against the defending Stanley Cup champion Washington Capitals.

This newly naturalized American is as clutch as clutch is. He has more Game 7 points – 15 – than any other player in the history of the game. And last night, he moved ahead of Glenn Anderson for Game 7 goals, with 8.

Not one to hog the spotlight, he told reporters after the game that “every single guy had a part in this.” Maybe so, but after Wednesday, Mr. Williams’ legacy is sealed. Willing his team to win, gritting it out to the last second, playing the game for its own joy – such values apparently resound in the locker room and far outside it.

This is supposedly a true story.

My 20-something nephew says he saw Justin Williams, the captain of the Carolina Hurricanes hockey club, on a plane on the way home to Raleigh, North Carolina, before this season.

The Canadian winger was in grubby surfer shorts, a busted T-shirt, flip-flops, set off by a mop of wild hair and a full beard.

Sam is a huge Hurricanes fan and a fantastic hockey player, so of course I believe his impression of the three-time champ: hockey star as regular schlub.

On Wednesday, now sporting stubble and a game-day suit, the player known as “Mr. Game 7” laced up in another elimination match-up in Round 1 of the Stanley Cup playoffs as his wet-behind-the-ears Hurricanes squad faced the defending Stanley Cup champion Washington Capitals, all but three of whom had Game 7 experience.

On paper, “Jay Willie” is a fairly average 6-foot-1-inch forward from Cobourg, Ontario, entering the twilight of a long and injury-prone career, including scoring a goal after a puck glanced off his face earlier this season.

But at the barn, the newly naturalized American is as clutch as clutch is.

Mr. Williams has more Game 7 points – 15 – than any other player in the history of the game. Last night, he moved ahead of Glenn Anderson for Game 7 goals, with 8. He has won the Cup three times: once with Carolina in 2006 (where he scored in Game 7) and twice with the Los Angeles Kings in 2012 and 2014, the year he won the Conn Smythe Trophy for the postseason MVP after scoring 9 goals in the playoffs.

On Wednesday night, the Canes came from behind – twice – to win in double overtime, 4-3. Mr. Williams had a winning assist. “Every single guy had a part in this,” he told reporters after the game.

Maybe so, but after Wednesday, Mr. Williams’ legacy is sealed. The Capitals’ Russian winger Alex Ovechkin is a powerhouse scorer, a natural, almost profound, talent. Mr. Williams owns another kind of DNA, recognizable instantly to middle managers, line cooks, and fishermen – those of us more used to grimaces of failure than tears of victory.

“You have to believe that you can win,” Mr. Williams told a reporter before his squad squeaked into the playoffs as a wild card.

Mr. Williams’ most recent Game 7 experience did not go well. Playing for the Capitals two years ago, the team lost a heartbreaker in an early round. Sans Mr. Williams, the Capitals regrouped last year, and Mr. Ovechkin led the team to the title.

Last year, Mr. Williams returned to the Canes and watched two younger players be named co-captains. When his former teammate Rod Brind’Amour took over the coaching job this season, he made Mr. Williams captain. The former co-captains told TV reporters they were relieved. “My approach to the captaincy is just to be myself,” he told reporters.

Gerry Broome/AP
Carolina Hurricanes’ Justin Williams (14) collides with Washington Capitals goalie Braden Holtby (70) during the second period of Game 6 of an NHL hockey first-round playoff series in Raleigh, North Carolina, Monday, April 22.

It worked. After the longest playoff drought in the league – 10 years – the Canes advanced to Round 2.

The Caps are 5-12 all-time in Game 7s, dead last in the league. The Hurricanes are 5-0.

Mr. Brind’Amour summed up the captain’s influence on the youngest squad in the playoffs: “Hey, frankly, he’s not the best player. But he knows how to win, and that’s more important.”

On cue, Mr. Williams scored a decisive goal on Monday to force the do-or-die. Last night, he had the key assist on the winning goal against the defending champions.

Willing his team to win, gritting it out to the last second, playing the game for its own joy – such values apparently resound in the locker room and far outside it.

“It’s quite simple,” Mr. Williams told reporters before Wednesday's elimination game. “You learn about people when it’s win or go home, when it’s us or them. [Monday] it was us, and now it’s them too. Anything can happen next game and we’re happy to be playing it.”

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