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Williams shows how good he can be when healthy

by Staff Writer / Los Angeles Kings
By Arpon Basu  - Correspondent

Justin Williams' hockey career should be defined by a list of accomplishments and awards.

Unfortunately, a more apt description of the dynamic Los Angeles Kings forward's time in the NHL would be a list of injuries.

From the time he broke his finger in his rookie season with the Philadelphia Flyers in January 2001, Williams has been subjected to a seemingly never-ending string of bad luck on the injury front. But every time Williams has managed to remain healthy enough to play 82 games, he's topped the 30-goal mark; however, that's happened just twice in his career.

Now, heading into Thursday's home game against the Florida Panthers (10:30 p.m. ET, NHLN-CA), Williams is on pace to stay healthy and score at least 30 goals with the Kings.

But there is that one big condition attached to it.

"I've had a few tough years, there's no sugar-coating that," Williams said. "It's been tough mentally and physically getting myself back to where I want to be. Here, I'm feeling confident and I've been given every opportunity to succeed by the organization. I'm just focusing on staying healthy, playing every game and being a great asset."

There's never been much doubt about Williams' talent, something he was able to put on full display during those two injury-free seasons with the Carolina Hurricanes.

In 2005-06, Williams scored 31 goals with a career-high 76 points and was a force in the postseason with 18 points in 25 games. He scored the final goal, into an empty-net, to ice Carolina's 3-1 win against Edmonton in Game 7 of the Stanley Cup Final.

His only other injury-free season came the next season, with Williams scoring a career-high 33 goals and playing in the 2007 All-Star Game, the first All-Star selection in his career -- one that now appeared to be on a fast-track to superstardom.

"The playoffs and the Stanley Cup are obviously big feathers in my cap that I'm real proud of. The next year I made the All-Star Game and things were looking up," Williams said. "Then bing, bang, boom, three years in a row with injuries and all of a sudden you're back to, 'What have you done for me lately?' It's a funny game in this League -- one day you're here and the next you're forgotten. I want to get my name recognized again."

The "bing" for Williams was a torn anterior cruciate ligament in his right knee suffered just before Christmas in 2007, costing him the rest of the season. The "bang" was a torn Achilles' tendon suffered in testing prior to the first day of training camp for the 2008-09 season, putting Williams back on the sidelines for the entire camp and 25 games of the regular season, only to have that followed by a broken hand in February 2009.

He still was recovering from the hand injury when Carolina traded him to the Kings at the 2008-09 trade deadline.

And finally, the "boom" was a broken leg he suffered a day after Christmas last year when teammate Anze Kopitar and Phoenix Coyotes defenseman Ed Jovanovski fell on him, forcing Williams to leave the ice on a stretcher and the lineup for the next 2 1/2 months.

"My injuries have been … when I do it, I seem to do it good," Williams said with a chuckle. "It was tough. There were definitely tears and thoughts of, 'Will I ever be healthy again? Am I ever going to be back on top where I was? Am I ever going to be a player in this League?' Mentally pushing through, there was obviously a lot of family support, but ultimately it came down to me and I've still got a long way to go. I'm still just at the beginning of getting back to where I want to be. But it's a good step in the right direction."

That step has been the opening 23 games of this season, where Williams has teamed with Jarret Stoll and Ryan Smyth to form perhaps the best second line in hockey.

Since the three of them got together after the second game of the season, Williams has failed to make the score sheet only four times, piling up 21 points over those 21 games.

"He's just so … the best word is unpredictable," Kings captain Dustin Brown said. "Watching him, even on the bench, you never know which way he's going to go, and that's hard to play against. He's pretty squirmy out there. He's pretty tall, but he's pretty slender and he can battle with those big guys pretty good."

Squirmy? Not exactly a typical hockey compliment.

"That's the word to describe him, though," Brown said.

Williams doesn't disagree, and even is flattered by Brown's description.

"I think that's a good compliment, because it means you can get into areas, find the puck and pull it off the boards," he said. "That's a big part of my game, pulling pucks off the wall and making plays for the other guys."

No one would blame Williams for wanting to revel in this early season success, not after everything he's been through just to get to this point. But it is precisely that journey full of potholes and pitfalls that keeps Williams grounded, and reminds him it can disappear without a moment's notice.

"I've taken things in steps," Williams said. "Step 1 was having a good training camp. Step 2 was having a good start. It's a cliché, but it certainly works for me to take them one game at a time. Things
can change so quickly."

There might not be another player in the NHL who knows that better than Williams, but he's hoping the latest change finally is a positive one.
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