Justin Williams starred for the Caps in Game 1 of the 2017 Stanley Cup playoffs. (John McDonnell / The Washington Post)
Justin Williams’s tenure with the Washington Capitals started with a blessing from his son, Jaxon. Two years ago, the Williams family was watching hockey, the rare spring Justin didn’t find himself in the postseason, where he has made his name and earned a revered reputation. After seven years with the Los Angeles Kings, unrestricted free agency was approaching and Jaxon offered some input.
“Daddy,“ he said, “if we don’t go back to L.A., you should play with [Alex] Ovechkin because he’s the best.”
Unrestricted free agency is approaching again this summer, but Williams is trying to put off fretting about it for as long as possible. He came to the Capitals knowing that salary cap constraints could prevent his tenure here from lasting longer than two years, but he saw Washington and Ovechkin as his best chance to win a fourth Stanley Cup. So rather than opting for security, Williams did the opposite.
[Caps’ fourth line flexes in Game 1]
Since then, he has become the calming voice in the locker room teammates trust when games are their most tense, such as when Washington suddenly faced a two-goal hole on Thursday night against the Maple Leafs. Williams scored twice to force overtime before forward Tom Wilson got the game-winner in the Capitals’ first game of their playoff series with Toronto. “We look to him to guide us. He’s been through a lot, if not all situations, when it comes to playoffs,” forward T.J. Oshie said.
Williams’s winning résumé commanded the respect of a Capitals locker room desperate for some postseason success.
“A lot of Game 7s, a lot of rings,” Coach Barry Trotz said as if it were obvious when describing Williams’s appeal. But Williams also won his team over with a surprisingly laid-back demeanor for someone who’s at his best when the pressure is turned up. In Washington, he’s the goofball who fluffed his already voluminous hair to make team picture day just a little more fun. On off days during the season, he would help coach Jaxon’s youth hockey team.
“I’m not 25 years old, I’m 35,” Williams said. “I know where I stand and what I want. And what I want is another ring, and this was the best opportunity to do it. So you ensconce yourself in it, you make sure that you’re doing all you can to maximize your role and the players around you, trying to make them better. It all goes with being a part of the team.”
With the Capitals down early in Game 1 against the Maple Leafs, Williams was at his best. He scored a goal on the power play by positioning himself in front of the net and staying there until he could tap in a pass from Oshie. When young Toronto defenseman Connor Carrick, a former Capitals prospect, took on the role of agitator early in the game, Williams called his bluff and shook off a glove as a challenge to fight.
“He stepped in there and saw a younger guy who was just basically only trying to get under people’s skin, and he asked him if he wanted to go,” Oshie said. “He’s a leader. I wouldn’t expect anything less of Stick.”
Williams scored the tying goal in the second period by capitalizing on a misplay by Toronto goaltender Frederik Andersen. In the locker room between periods, Wilson said Williams didn’t say much, but “when he talks, you listen.” Along with three Stanley Cup championships on two different teams, Williams has a Conn Smythe Trophy to his name for being the Kings’ most valuable playoff performer when they won in 2014. In Washington, Williams has been “Steady Eddie” as Wilson put it: 46 goals and 54 assists over two seasons. Thursday was the fourth multi-goal playoff performance of his 17-year career.
[Boswell: Playoffs in D.C. aren’t for the faint of heart]
But General Manager Brian MacLellan has seen Williams’s impact in less tangible ways. Playing alongside Evgeny Kuznetsov for most of the season, Williams is a good mentor for the young center and “picks him up and brings him into the battle,” MacLellan said recently. In the same moments MacLellan has noticed Kuznetsov’s body language get down because his game isn’t going well, he’s seen Williams look more determined.
“When he has spots when he’s not playing as well, he just works harder,” MacLellan said. “He goes to the net, he tries to get involved, even when it’s not going good, until it changes. He just changes the energy of it by competing harder, where Kuzy kind of goes the other way. He needs to learn to, ‘I’m going to go harder now when I’m not going well.’ ”
As with every pending unrestricted free agent, MacLellan is holding off on decisions about who the Capitals can afford to keep and who they will have to move on from until after this postseason run. If it’s successful, perhaps MacLellan will try to keep as much of the core together as possible. If there’s another early exit, then MacLellan might take the roster in a different direction.
Williams’s priority for the moment is the reason he came here, to win another championship.
“I’m not going to bull—- you and say I haven’t thought about it,” Williams said of his expiring contract. “I guess, yes, I’ve thought about it. It’s just not on my mind right now. I’m thinking game-to-game here. We’ll see what happens at the end of the year.”