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Williams comes back strong, sparks Hurricanes in playoff push

Veteran forward returned to Carolina in January, has six goals in past five games

by Nicholas J. Cotsonika @cotsonika / Columnist

Justin Williams has scored six goals in the past five games for the Carolina Hurricanes.

"Not surprised," teammate Sebastian Aho said.


"He's Justin Williams," Aho said.

OK. Yes. He's Justin Williams.

The forward won the Stanley Cup with the Hurricanes in 2006 and the Los Angeles Kings in 2012 and 2014; won the Conn Smythe Trophy as the most valuable player of the Stanley Cup Playoffs in 2014; and was captain of the Hurricanes last season when they made the playoffs for the first time in 10 seasons and advanced to the Eastern Conference Final.

But he's 38 years old, and he spent the first half of the season out of the NHL, and he signed a one-year contract Jan. 7. 

Video: CAR@DET: Williams buries one-timer for PPG

And now he's not only a wise, veteran leader in the locker room, but a key contributor to a team in the thick of the playoff race. The Hurricanes are tied with the Columbus Blue Jackets for the first wild card into the playoffs from the Eastern Conference entering their game against the New Jersey Devils at Prudential Center on Thursday (7 p.m. ET; MSG, FS-CR, NHL.TV).

Perhaps we shouldn't be surprised. Still, we should be impressed.

"We all talk about what he does off the ice, but everybody forgets what he means to us on the ice," Hurricanes general manager Don Waddell said. "He was instrumental to our success last year, and since he's been back, every game he seems to score big goals for us."

Williams had 53 points (23 goals, 30 assists) in 82 games for Carolina last season, third on the Hurricanes, and seven points (four goals, three assists) in 15 playoff games.

He felt he didn't have enough for another 82-game regular season and up to four rounds of playoffs. So he took time to be a dad and a fan, then ramped up workouts in November and December until he felt ready to rejoin the Hurricanes in January.

He scored the shootout winner in his season debut, a 2-1 win against the New York Islanders at PNC Arena on Jan. 19. He scored twice in his next game, a 4-1 win against the Winnipeg Jets there Jan. 21. He has 11 points (eight goals, three assists) in 20 games this season.

Video: NYI@CAR: Williams scores SO goal, leads Storm Surge

"He was back [to form from] Day One," Hurricanes coach Rod Brind'Amour said.

But no matter how good you are, how experienced you are, how accomplished you are, it isn't easy to hop into the NHL midseason.

After the NHL All-Star break and the Hurricanes' mandatory five-day break, Williams had an assist in a 4-3 loss to the Vegas Golden Knights at home Jan. 31.

Then he had two points over his next 12 games, scoring the shootout winner in a 4-3 win against the Vancouver Canucks at home Feb. 2 and a shootout goal in a 6-5 win at the Golden Knights on Feb. 8.

"I mean, anybody who's coming back, having a few months off like I had, the first few games, you're just kind of running on adrenaline," Williams said. "You feel great, and then you have, after that wears off, a catching-up process. That takes quite a few games.

"But I think that's behind me. I feel up to pace, I feel up to speed and I feel good out there. That's always good when you get further in the season. Then you don't get tired as much, and you can kind of skate for hours."

The idea was for Williams to help when it mattered most.

Video: CAR@PIT: Williams tips one through legs to pad lead

Well, after home losses to the Dallas Stars and Colorado Avalanche, the Hurricanes found themselves one point out of a playoff spot the morning of Feb. 29 as they began a six-game road trip. That's when Williams started to get hot.

The Hurricanes have gone 3-1-1 and climbed back into a playoff spot while Williams has gone on a five-game goal streak.

Waddell said Williams was one of their best players in a 3-2 overtime win at the Islanders on Saturday and in a 6-2 win at the Pittsburgh Penguins on Sunday.

They were tied 2-2 at the Detroit Red Wings entering the third period Tuesday when Williams scored on the power play. It turned out to be the game-winning goal in a 5-2 victory.

"He just finds a way to get it done," Waddell said. "He's energetic. He's smart. He's not the fastest guy in the world, but he knows how to protect the puck."

Funny. Aho said something similar.

"He makes a lot of great decisions out there and plays a pretty simple game," Aho said. "It's easy to read off him. Wins every puck battle out there. Maybe not the fastest guy, but he's really smart and strong."

Williams, listening as Aho spoke, smiled and flexed his arm. He's enjoying himself. The wild-card race is so tight in the East that the Hurricanes, Blue Jackets, Islanders, New York Rangers and Florida Panthers are within three points.

"That's what I came back for," he said. "I came back to play meaningful hockey and compete against the world's best, and we're doing that right now, and I hope to play a few more months."

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