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Williams front and center for resurging Hurricanes

37-year-old captain big reason Carolina may end long playoff drought

by Amalie Benjamin @AmalieBenjamin / Staff Writer

BOSTON -- It was deep into the night, maybe 4 a.m. by his recall, when the phone of Carolina Hurricanes forward Justin Williams rang. It was his former teammates on the Washington Capitals, raging through the night in Las Vegas, having just won the Stanley Cup. Their faces popped up on his screen, the FaceTime showing their joy and exhilaration at the ultimate goal, accomplished.

"That team has just been so good for so long and to see them finally win -- albeit I would have loved to be there and I was jealous I wasn't -- I never really openly rooted for another team as much as I did with them," Williams said Monday at the Hurricanes' hotel in Boston. "They found a way to do it. They found a way to get a little bit more out of each other."

It was fitting, then, that they called Williams that night. The three-time Stanley Cup winner, who played for the Capitals from 2015-17, left his mark on the team that would go on to win the Stanley Cup the season after he signed with Carolina as a free agent, where he is now trying to alter the leadership and the culture in much the same way he did in Washington. 

"Even though we didn't win when he was here, he brought a lot to the table," Capitals forward Tom Wilson said. "It didn't happen that year, but it instilled that in the locker room and left that impression even after he was gone on how you act, how you play. We didn't get a bounce those years, but we went on to [win]. For the young guys, for everyone, I think learning from him was huge."

Video: CAR@BOS: Williams hammers home one-timer to tie game

This season, it has worked in Carolina. The Hurricanes (36-23-7) are one of the hottest teams in the NHL, having gone 21-6-2 in their past 29 games. They enter their game against the Winnipeg Jets at PNC Arena on Friday (7:30 p.m. ET; FS-CR, TSN3, NHL.TV) holding the first wild card into the Stanley Cup Playoffs from the Eastern Conference. 

This was the plan when Williams signed a two-year, $9 million contract with the Hurricanes on July 1, 2017. They knew it. He knew it. He was turning 36 that October, and he understood his position. 

"I knew exactly what I was getting into when I signed back in Carolina," said Williams, whose first stint in Carolina began in 2003-04 season and ended after he was traded to the Los Angeles Kings late in the 2008-09 season. "I was going to be an older guy. I was going to be a guy who is going to be leaned on for leadership -- but at the same time, talking and doing are two different things and it's a lot better if you can do both."

And at 37, a difficult age to succeed in the current NHL environment, Williams is doing each, not just acting as a figurehead captain in Carolina. He has 43 points (19 goals, 24 assists) in 66 games and is on pace for 23 goals, which would be his highest total since scoring 24 in 2016-17 with Washington and his second highest since he scored 33 with the Hurricanes in 2006-07. 

"We're getting what we knew we were going to get, if that makes sense," said Rod Brind'Amour, a former teammate of Williams in Carolina who is in his first season as Hurricanes coach. "A quality person and then a player, obviously his play has exceeded what I thought, to be quite honest with you. But just the competitiveness, just doing it right every day, things that we need in our locker room, he's been a great leader for us."

Video: CAR@FLA: Williams goes top shelf for second goal

Brind'Amour is part of that.

"I didn't have to prove myself to another coach, right?" said Williams, who is skating on the team's top line with Sebastian Aho and Nino Niederreiter. "He knows what I am. He knows what I can do. I know what he is and I know what he's going to preach and I know what kind of coach he's going to be. … He trusts me. He's given me opportunities to succeed playing in a lot of situations whereas you might not play if it was another coach, who didn't know you as well."

Williams, like Brind'Amour, has seen what Carolina can be when it is playing well. They were teammates on the 2005-06 Hurricanes who won the Stanley Cup, the first of three times Williams won the Cup (Los Angeles Kings, 2012, 2014). 

Back then, Brind'Amour was the 35-year-old captain and Williams was 24.

Now, Brind'Amour is the coach and Williams the 37-year-old captain.

The Hurricanes have been to the Stanley Cup Playoffs once since that run, a trip to the Eastern Conference Final in 2009. They are trying to bring back what the Hurricanes once were, after an absence from the playoffs of almost a decade.

That's why Williams is out front leading the Storm Surge, the postgame celebrations that have ranged from a limbo line to a game of Duck, Duck, Goose, to a sparring match between Evander Holyfield and Jordan Martinook. 

Video: STL@CAR: Evander Holyfield celebrates with Hurricanes

This, from a player who used to slip into the dressing room almost before his teammates had finished the stick salute to the crowd in Washington.

They didn't need him then. They need him now. He has read the room and seen what needs to be done. 

"Every situation is different," Williams said, acknowledging the alteration in his approach. "We've come up with something to kind of rebrand ourselves. And the only way to do that is winning, but we're trying to do a little bit more with the community and with the Carolina Hurricanes. We want to creep into relevancy again. It's been a long time without it."

And that can build on itself. The lack of success can breed more lack of success. 

Of the 21 players on the Hurricanes roster, 10 haven't played in the playoffs. Eight more have played 25 or fewer games. Only Niederreiter (39) and Jordan Staal (73) can even begin to approach Williams' total of 140 games in the playoffs. And none of them, outside of Williams, have played in the postseason in a Hurricanes jersey.

"When you don't have a lot of success, you can slip into the fact that that's OK," Williams said. "Average is OK. And as athletes, we want to be pushed. We want to be the best and when it doesn't happen for a little bit, your mind gets a little soft.

"I guess [our task is] bringing back that notion that that's not good enough. For a franchise that I've seen when it's good, it's upsetting to me."

Because Williams knows that nothing is a substitute for winning. 

Video: CAR@OTT: Williams roofs PPG to put Hurricanes ahead

And right now, the Hurricanes are winning. They're winning and they're having fun. And right out front, in the dressing room, on the ice after wins, is their captain, the player Aho recently referred to as "daddy" in a postgame interview. The player who is picking his spots and choosing his words to land most effectively on the young dressing room in Carolina. As Aho later clarified about that particular word, "It's like he really takes care of everything. He cares about guys. He cares about our organization. You can really tell he cares."

"I'm pouring everything that I have into it," Williams said. "It's the only way I know how to do it. I like the direction of our team. I like how we've battled through what we've gone through. And we're here and we're still fighting and we're still playing meaningful hockey games in March. We want to be playing meaningful hockey games the next couple months as well."

Beyond that, Williams doesn't know. He can't predict what will happen for the Hurricanes, for himself. The veteran of 18 NHL seasons, who has 776 points (308 goals, 468 assists) in 1,228 games, has been here before, but knows there are so many variables that make the difference between a team that makes the playoffs, that goes deep into the playoffs, that wins the Stanley Cup -- or that misses the postseason. 

"One of the big mistakes that I think a lot of people do is they create ceilings for themselves," Williams said. "You hear, 'Oh, we just want to make playoffs'. That's all well and good, but if that's your main goal, then you're never going to get what you want. 

"So I don't know where we're going to end up after 82 games. I don't know when the season's going to end, but I'm going to put everything I have into it and see where it takes us."

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