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Kings' Williams is Fresh, Healthy, and Performing

by Rich Hammond / Los Angeles Kings
Most of his teammates had already showered and dressed. Some were already heading toward the bus for the trip back to the hotel. Justin Williams was just getting off the ice.

It was April 17, the morning of Game 2 of the first-round playoffs series between the Kings and Vancouver Canucks, and things weren't going as Williams had hoped. He had been designated as a healthy scratch for that game, although some could even debate the ``healthy'' half of that term.

It wan't what Williams had hoped for, not what he envisioned when he exceeded expectations and returned from a broken ankle after less than three months off the ice.

The Kings lost that series in six games, and Williams didn't play in three of them. That left him with a long summer of reflection, and it appears as though he used that time wisely.

Healthy and motivated, Williams is off to a banner start this season, with team highs of six goals (tied with Dustin Brown) and 14 points going into Thursday's home game against the Dallas Stars.

Coaches, teammates and league followers are raving about the ``jump'' Williams seems to have in his game this season and, well, what a difference two healthy legs can make. Arguably for the first time in his tenure with the Kings, Williams is healthy and playing to his full potential.

Kings coach Terry Murray was all but beaming with pride last week, when Williams' play came up after he scored the lone goal in the Kings' victory over Tampa Bay.

``Right from the first day of training camp, he’s on the puck, he’s enthusiastic,'' Murray said. ``He brings a lot of energy to our bench, to the locker room, every day in practice. He’s back.''

Of course, saying Williams is ``back'' this season presupposes that there is something he needed to come back from. In Williams' case, there have unfortunately been plenty of somethings, mostly dealing with his chronic history of freak injuries.

When the Kings acquired Williams during the 2008-09, in what essentially turned out to be a three-team swap for Patrick O'Sullivan, they emphasized the positives. There were Williams' two 30-goal seasons, plus the Stanley Cup ring he won with the Carolina Hurricanes in 2006.

The Kings held their breath in terms of Williams' other history, that dealing with injuries.

Not since 2006-07 has Williams played in more than 49 games in a season. What must be all the more frustrating, for Williams, is that he doesn't have a chronic injury, a bad back or groin. His injuries have largely been of the ``freak'' variety, and have been long-term ailments.

A ruptured Achilles tendon. A broken hand. Then, early in the first period of the Kings' Dec. 26 game at Phoenix last season, a twisted leg in a scramble behind the net. Williams would leave the ice on a stretcher, his ankle broken, at least a three-month recovery on the horizon.

Throughout the second half of the season, the Kings seemed headed to the playoffs, and he wanted to be there. He pushed his recovery, got back on the ice as soon as possible and surprised many observers by returning in mid-March, perhaps two weeks ahead of schedule.

The desire was admirable, but the results weren't strong. Williams had only two goals and three assists in his final 16 regular-season games, and clearly looked a step slow, no surprise given the trauma that his leg had undergone just a couple months earlier.

After a weak Game 1 showing against Vancouver, Williams found himself on the ice for extra skating the next day, an all-too-clear sign that he would be a healthy scratch for Game 2.

In the locker room, Williams politely declined to comment about his demotion, and the plot line slid to the background as the Canucks finished off the Kings in a spirited six-game series.

That's where the work was just beginning for Williams, though. Determined to get back the speed he seemed to have lost upon his return last season, Williams stepped up his conditioning, and it showed from the first day of training camp.

Williams' game is built around his ability to chase down the puck, manage it in tight spaces and get it to teammates with precision and intelligence.

``I’ve said from the start of the year, from the start of training camp, that this year is much too important for me, my career and the team to leave to chance,'' Williams said. ``I’ve done everything I can, physically, and I’m just focusing on playing hard and staying healthy for the whole season. When I do that, I know I can be successful and I can be a great asset to this team. I want to keep us pushing forward.''

So far, so good. Williams had a strong start last season, before his injury, and so far has exceeded it this season, with six goals and eight assists in the Kings' first 13 games. Williams has been playing right wing on a productive second line with center Jarret Stoll and winger Ryan Smyth.

Williams knows what is at stake. It's not just his reputation, or the Kings' chances of going deep in the playoffs, although it is both of those things. Beyond that, it's a contract year for Williams. He's in the final year of the five-year deal he signed with Carolina in the summer of 2006, and every team -- the Kings primary among them -- will be looking to see if he can stay healthy and productive.

``Justin Williams is here,'' Murray said, ``and this is the player that we knew we were getting when we made the deal for him. I’m real happy for him. This is a big year for him, and he knows that. This is a contract year for him and, man, just keep going like this and everything else will fall in place.''
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