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Justin Williams steadying force for Capitals

Veteran forward keeps Washington on track against Maple Leafs, on ice and off

by Tom Gulitti @TomGulittiNHL / Staff Writer

ARLINGTON, Va. -- Whether the Washington Capitals need someone to lighten the mood or step up in a pressure moment in the Stanley Cup Playoffs, they look to the same player.

And somehow, right wing Justin Williams finds the perfect balance. 

He can show up with his hair poofed out to make a routine team photo memorable. Or he can stand up in the locker room and deliver the necessary calming message.

He also has a knack for scoring big goals.

Williams did that and more in a 3-2 victory against the Toronto Maple Leafs in Game 1 of the Eastern Conference First Round on Thursday. He scored twice to help the Capitals overcome a slow start and put them in position to take control of the series in Game 2 at Verizon Center on Saturday (7 p.m. ET; NBCSN, CBC, TVA Sports, CSN-DC).

"That's his thing," Capitals forward Brett Connolly said Friday at Washington's practice facility. "He finds ways to be relaxed and calm in big situations."

That was the main reason the Capitals signed Williams, the owner of three Stanley Cup rings and the 2014 Conn Smythe Trophy, as well as all the respect that goes with those, as an unrestricted free agent on July 1, 2015. Washington, which hasn't advanced past the second round of the playoffs since it made its lone Stanley Cup Final appearance, in 1998, needed someone to help guide it through.

Williams was the perfect fit.

"A lot of Game 7s, a lot of rings," Capitals coach Barry Trotz said.

Williams' exploits in Game 7 -- a League-record 14 points, a record-tying seven goals and a 7-0 record -- earned him the nickname Mr. Game 7. But the 35-year-old was Mr. Everything for the Capitals in Game 1.

Video: TOR@WSH, Gm1: Williams slams home Oshie's silky feed

It went far beyond the two goals he scored to erase Washington falling behind by two. When the young Maple Leafs were pressuring the Capitals into turnovers and giving them fits with their speed in the first period, Trotz said it was Williams who spoke up on the bench and said, "Let's just start playing here. We're not playing. We're standing around waiting for something to happen."

"Perhaps a little tentative with the puck early. Playoff jitters a little bit to start," Williams said in assessing the Capitals' play in Game 1. "But once the game gets going, your adrenaline takes over and you start to make plays, and we started to make more plays and we started to move the puck and we started to impose our will a little bit."

The Capitals weren't supposed to nervous early. They're the Presidents' Trophy winners and one of the Stanley Cup favorites who are deep at forward and on defense, have goaltender Braden Holtby, the reigning Vezina Trophy winner, and a huge advantage in experience against the Maple Leafs, who had nine players make their playoff debut in Game 1.

But after Toronto scored twice in the opening 9:44 and the Verizon Center crowd got restless, Washington looked well on its way to a disappointing Game 1 loss and all the pressure that would have brought to a team known for its past postseason failures.

Williams' teammates credited him with speaking up during the first intermission to get them to refocus.

"He was just saying to keep it going and it was still our game," right wing T.J. Oshie said. "Not much really needed to be said. It wasn't some big written-up speech. It was just a couple words. We look to him to guide us."

Shortly after Williams' first goal, on the power play at 12:24 of the first period, helped the Capitals get their feet under them, he confronted Maple Leafs defenseman Connor Carrick, who played 53 games for Washington from 2013-16 and had been a general nuisance early in the game trying irritate some of his former teammates with some after-the-whistle and away-from-the-puck instigating.

Having had enough of that, Williams asked Carrick, 23, to drop the gloves. Carrick did not oblige but immediately ceased his agitating ways.

"That's another one of those veteran things that kind of shuts [Carrick] up a little bit," said Game 1 overtime hero Tom Wilson, who tangled with Carrick earlier in the first period.

Williams knows how to do that, and how to keep things light and relieve pressure that way. But he also knows when something serious needs to be said to alleviate what many in the Capitals locker room must have been feeling during the first intermission.

Video: TOR@WSH, Gm1: Williams pokes home his second of game

"Obviously, everybody's expecting us to win everything and there's a lot of pressure," Connolly said. "But there's going to be moments when we're going to go down by two goals or we're going to go down by three goals maybe. You never know. It's just a matter of how we respond and he's a good guy to have in the room. He's calming and a good influence just trying to keep guys positive and all that."

The Capitals regained their composure, tied the game 2-2 on Williams' goal with four minutes left in the second period, and won it in overtime on Wilson's goal.

"Everything's about momentum," Williams said. "They certainly had it to start and we kind of calmed down, settled the nerves and we did what we wanted to do: come back from [down] two goals and now you keep the pressure on."

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