WASHINGTON, D.C—By now it has seemingly blossomed into an annoyance more than anything else, scoring all those darned goals at all these darned weighty moments, to the extent that Justin Williams could face the cameras at Verizon Center and pooh-pooh his latest feat with perfect sincerity. “I was in the right place at the right time,” he said, using every ounce of leftover strength from another overtime to keep his eyes from shooting up into that static-shock haircut.
The Capitals know better. T.J. Oshie knows better. He spent seven seasons facing Williams in the Western Conference, including two playoff series. He noticed the knack then, as Williams was busy earning the nickname “Mr. Game 7” for so much timely heroism, and he saw it again Friday night, when Williams stepped into the slot and pummeled the game-winner past Toronto goalie Frederik Andersen, 64 seconds into sudden death, for a 2-1 win and a 3-2 series lead.
“There’s a level of competitiveness that I think some people are able to bring themselves too, and there are some guys who can just bring it higher,” Oshie says. “He’s one of those guys that, when everyone gets tense and grabs their stick a little tight, he gets more focused and finds ways to pull off the big plays. Obviously that’s what we needed at that time."
It's what Williams provides in spades, even if he insists otherwise. He now has two playoff overtime goals to his credit, plus five more postseason game-winners. Since 2010-11, only a trio of Blackhawks—Patrick Kane, Jonathan Toews and Duncan Keith—have more points in Games 5-7 than Williams's 24.
“Maybe doesn’t always get the credit he deserve, but you watch the way he battles, the way he competes when games are tight, not just in the playoffs but in the regular season, the more important the game, the bigger Justin plays," Oshie added.
Allowed the chance to rebut, Williams returned to the well of humility and filled another bucket. “He’s just flattering me,” Williams cracked of Oshie. “I like to flatter him too.” But ask broad enough questions, steer the conversation away from individual accomplishments, and some kernels of wisdom just might pop from the winger whose career championship haul (three) triples the rest of Washington’s Cup-starved roster combined (one). “These are big moments,” says Williams, who preferably goes by the mundane nickname, “Stick.” “To win a championship, you need to relish these moments and you need to come up big in these moments.”
Toronto may be facing elimination Sunday at Maple Leaf Gardens, its magical worst-to-playoffs rise nearing its potential end, but a similar ethos keeps streaming from the hardened man behind its bench. “You can’t have any more fun in this,” coach Mike Babcock said. “These games are good.” And while so many chewed nails in this nation’s capital—not to mention all those churned stomachs north of the border—might object, those mercifully without stakes in this race understand how true this sounds.
Five games have passed between the Presidents’ Trophy winners and the No. 8 seed. Four have required overtime; the one regulation decision, the Capitals’ sorely needed 5-4 triumph in Game 4, featured a spirited Leafs' comeback that at least made it close. Washington barely leads in both total goals (16-15) and total shot attempts (187-184). Shots on goal, meanwhile, are knotted at 175 apiece. Wasn’t that Capitals general manager Brian MacLellan before overtime, sneaking some popcorn from the press box snack table? Can you blame him?
And could we get some too?
After the aggregate scoring output had swelled from five in Game 1 to seven in Games 2-3 to nine in Game 4, the Capitals wanted a defensively sounder effort upon returning home. “I don't think it’s like us to have this type of high-scoring, playoff hockey lately,” said forward Marcus Johansson, whose speedy forecheck amounted to the secondary assist on Williams’s winner.
Here they took their cues from their goalie. Twenty seconds after the puck dropped, Braden Holtby faced an oncoming odd-man rush from Leafs forwards Connor Brown and Leo Komarov. He tracked the backdoor pass perfectly, moving left to right as Brown fed Komarov and gloving the puck. “After that you knew he was zoned in,” coach Barry Trotz said. “I thought they threw a lot of pucks there. They were bumping him every time they could. They were standing near him and bumping him in the crease area and he just battled through that. He was fantastic for us. That’s what Braden Holtby does.”
Indeed, everyone seemed to fill their usual lanes. After Nazem Kadri’s low-bridge hit left Alex Ovechkin doubled over in pain the end of the first period—and flatlined the heartbeats of a sellout crowd—the Russian machine returned for the second and quickly rammed into defenseman Jake Gardiner on his first shift, no worse for wear. Oshie broke the scoreless tie with Ovechkin in the locker room, cleaning up around the net on the power play like he so often does; six minutes into the second period, Auston Matthews held serve with his third tally of the playoffs, a suitable encore to his 40-goal rookie season.
Then, of course, there was Williams. Fifty-two seconds into overtime, center Jay Beagle won a defensive zone draw against Matthews and beelined for the bench, where Williams waited for a quick change. As Johansson chipped the puck to linemate Evgeny Kuznetsov behind Toronto’s net, Williams headed for vacant real estate in the slot and went five-hole on Andersen. “A freebie,” Babcock called it. "We had enough people there but didn’t sort it out right."
Johansson found a different explanation. “He has that ice in his veins,” the left-winger said of Williams. “He’s obviously got a knack for that goal-scoring.” So let him tamp down the feats, deflect credit like every other hockey player. Just know that, inside the sea of red jerseys swarming swarmed against the glass, amid all the hugs and celebratory clonks on his helmet, Williams was hollering in delight like everyone else.
This was his place. This has always been his time.