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Kings' Williams possesses more than Game 7 goals

by Corey Masisak

CHICAGO -- Justin Williams is so well-known for something around the NHL he's earned a nickname for it.

"Mr. Game 7" scored the first goal for the Los Angeles Kings and helped set up another when they defeated the Anaheim Ducks in the winner-take-all finale of their Western Conference Second Round series. The designation is well-earned. Williams is 6-0 in Stanley Cup Playoff Game 7s, with six goals and 12 points.

When it's not a Game 7, Williams doesn't earn nearly the same level of attention. He fades off the marquee for the Kings and becomes one of the great role players they have assembled around stars Anze Kopitar, Drew Doughty and Jonathan Quick.

Maybe it shouldn't be that way.

Williams is one of the best in the League at winning battles for the puck along the boards, and that makes him an incredibly valuable player.

"It's experience, determination, second effort, smarts ... I would say all four of those are part of it," Williams said. "A lot of board battles go unnoticed within people outside the dressing room, to be quite honest. We focus on it a lot. We know it doesn't show up on the stat sheet, but winning battles all over the ice is so important."

The Kings were the best puck-possession team in the NHL this season. They've been one of the best for three years running. Williams is a puck-possession monster and one of the players who looks more valuable in the lens of advanced statistics instead of the ones on the back of his hockey card.

Williams had 19 goals and 43 points this season. In the past four seasons with the Kings, his traditional production has been steady, especially goal-scoring.

He finished second this season among forwards in Corsi for percentage at even strength, behind Boston Bruins center Patrice Bergeron. In 2012-13, Williams led the League. Two seasons ago, he was fifth behind Detroit Red Wings center Pavel Datsyuk, Bergeron, Dallas Stars center Tyler Seguin and Vancouver Canucks left wing Daniel Sedin.

"He hangs onto the puck, goes to traffic, hangs onto the puck, makes the plays," Kings coach Darryl Sutter said. "Takes a beating to make plays. He's a role model for young players, for sure.

"That's the big thing now is the stat, the possession stat, that guys talk about. Justin is for sure one of the top guys in the League."

The reason for Williams' inclusion in a group of superstar-caliber players is his work along the wall. Williams might be the best player in the League engaging in a battle along the boards and coming out of it with the puck.

Winning those battles either regains possession for the Kings or prolongs it. He's a menace to opposing teams in the offensive zone. Teams will think they have a chance to get the puck out of the zone and he simply doesn't let them.

"He's slippery and obviously he's got the skill to make those hard, little plays under pressure," Kings center Jarret Stoll said. "And he wants the puck. He wants to make plays there. That's just his mentality. He's not afraid of anything, a D-man coming down the wall or whatever."

The Kings are so great at possessing the puck in part because of their style of play and their philosophy. It has been incorrectly cast as a defensive system or conservative philosophy because Los Angeles is so good at keeping the puck out of the net behind Quick, but it's the opposite.

Los Angeles wants the puck back and wants to take it off the other team, not just to force the opponent to dump it into the zone. When opposing defensemen try to rim the puck along the boards, that's often where Williams swoops in and works his magic.

"He has a Velcro-like thing with the puck," Kings captain Dustin Brown said. "I think I notice it more in the [offensive] zone. He's able to create space for himself along the wall. It allows him to maybe make that extra little play."

There's another thing that sets Williams apart from a lot of similar players. Many can be physical along the wall and dislodge the puck from an opponent, but then they feel the need to get it away from the scrum and out of danger as quickly as possible. Williams is among the best at retrieving the puck then hanging on to it for that extra second to buy time and find an open teammate.

"He's a very patient player," Brown said. "It's one of those things you can't teach. You can work on it as a player, but he's always had that ever since he's been here. He's able to hold onto the puck. That's a staple of his game."

Each of these traits feed into Williams' possession numbers. He helps the Kings get the puck back by winning disputes for it along the boards.

Then, instead of simply chipping into an open area or blindly whipping a pass that has little chance of being completed, Williams will deftly find a little space in a collection of bodies and look for an open man. Once he completes that pass, the chances of the Kings retaining possession and racking up more shot attempts increase greatly.

"Sometimes it pays off and sometimes it doesn't. You have to find a happy medium where you're not over-handling the puck," Williams said. "I'm a guy who obviously is a lot better when I do have the puck, get more confidence. I get into the game more. It's like a lot of guys in basketball who get their touches. It's the same thing in hockey. You get your touches and you're more into the game, you feel the puck and you feel your way into the game better."

Williams scored more than 30 goals twice for the Carolina Hurricanes and had a great playoff run when they won the Stanley Cup in 2006. He dealt with significant injuries before his recent run of analytic dominance.

He's not really an underrated player in the League because of his Game 7 heroics, but the rest of his game, and his true value to a puck-possession-mad team like the Kings, probably doesn't get the recognition it deserves.

"When he's on his game, he's stopping and starting and circling ... or 'dancing' as we like to call it in here, that allows him to make the plays he does," Brown said. "He's a very underrated all-around player, in my opinion."

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