There was a difference of opinion in Verizon Center about a key question late Friday night. And since journalistic objectivity requires balance, let’s give time to both sides of this debate.
The question was whether Justin Williams has a knack for scoring playoff goals at the biggest, most precarious, heart-stopping and dreadfully uncomfortable moments. Some people think — despite common perception — it ain’t necessarily so. Well, one person thinks that, anyhow. Justin Williams.
“I haven’t scored that many big goals,” he said, after scoring an overtime game-winner that sent the Caps back to Toronto with a 3-games-to-2 lead. “Just I was in the right place at the right time tonight.”
On the other side of the debate was, um, let’s see. Everybody else.
“There’s a level of competitiveness that I think some people are able to bring themselves to — and there are some guys that can just bring it higher,” T.J. Oshie said. “He’s one of those guys. He’s one of those guys that when everyone gets tense and everyone grabs their sticks a little tight, he gets more focused and finds ways to pull off the big play.”
“You know, there’s nothing better than getting Justin Williams the puck in an overtime game in the playoffs,” Nate Schmidt said.
“Stick came off the bench, and I think half of us were over the boards before he even shot it,” Brooks Orpik said on CSN, referring to Williams by his nickname. “It shows the faith we have in him.”
“Justin just step up at the right time,” Evgeny Kuznetsov said. “And that’s why he’s Justin.”
“That’s why he’s Justin” has resonance for possibly everyone who watched that hockey game, other than the overtime hero himself. In truth, Williams has never been very comfortable talking about all this, which makes some sense. If his playoff pressure spree is actually random — like hitting blackjack seven out of 10 hands, but only when you first recite the middle names of each of your great-aunts — you wouldn’t want to jinx it by talking about it.
And if, on the other hand, Williams actually has that ability so many people mention — knifing through the steamy tension and finding another level to his game and watching everything around him slow down when the stakes are highest — then he wouldn’t want to brag. Modesty, and all. He once told me that he hates the Mr. Game 7 moniker, because it’s such an individualistic thing. His teammates with the Los Angeles Kings, he said, had the same great record in Game 7s that he did. Why would just one guy get that nickname, he wondered. And maybe, he said, he would appreciate it more when he was done playing hockey. Maybe.
You have to poke and prod and cajole before you can get him even to talk about what might make someone a clutch performer, if such a thing can even exist.
“You want to make a difference. You can’t be afraid to make a mistake. You need to err on the side of excitement rather than apprehension; believe your instincts,” he once told me. “You’re not going to be good for anybody if you’re on your heels, waiting — like oh, I don’t want to make a mistake. You want to go out there and be the difference and want the puck. I mean, not everybody’s like that, but I think every professional athlete should be. We got to this level for a reason.”
Which doesn’t mean your nerves shouldn’t sizzle, and or that you shouldn’t soak in the moment, as your heart pounds and the crowd roars and fans wonder just what they could start chewing on once their fingernails have entirely vanished. It’s more about embracing that — all of it. After the Caps lost in double overtime in Game 2 of this series, Williams was almost grinning in the near-silent locker room. Why?
“Sitting in here in overtime, knowing that you could be the one that ends it — it’s a great feeling,” he said then.
They had just lost. The arena was shocked. The fan base was ready to panic. And here was Justin Williams, talking about the great feelings he had before overtime.
“You have to use your butterflies to your advantage,” he told me another time. “Being nervous is great. Use those as energy. Jeez, I’m nervous for every game. I’m nervous for every hockey game.”
It all sounds amorphous and mystical almost, and maybe it’s all coincidental bunk. But if the numbers were going to take a side in this argument, they probably would vote with the majority. Williams — a fine regular season player — now has 11 goals in games 5, 6 or 7 since 2012. That’s more than every NHL player besides Jonathan Toews and Patrick Kane — who each have received about 80 more minutes of ice time over that span than Williams.
He has 25 total playoff goals in that span, tied for the third-most in the league. He’s played 17 playoff games for Washington, and has six goals and six assists. He already has three goals for the Caps in games 5, 6 and 7 — tied with T.J. Oshie for the team lead since he joined the Caps. His seven career playoff game-winning goals are the most of anyone on this roster. He has played 44 times in games 5-7, and has 16 goals. And his teams are 26-18 in those games. If it’s all a coincidence, it’s one that has his teammates and coaches pretty well fooled.
“He’s a winner, plain and simple,” Coach Barry Trotz said Friday night. “His mind-set is he doesn’t think anything else but winning. And that’s why he’s special that way.”
“I don’t know, I’m sure glad he’s on our team,” Orpik told CSN, when asked about the clutch goals. “I think just his mentality there. He kind of said in the room right before we went out there, if we’re going to go down, we’re going to go down swinging.”
“I’ve seen it plenty of times,” Oshie said. “Maybe he doesn’t always get the credit he deserves, but you watch the way he battles, the way he competes when games are close, when games are tight. Not just in playoffs, but in the regular season. The more important the game, the bigger Justin plays.”
“He’s just flattering me,” Williams said of Oshie. “I like to flatter him too.”
Williams finished his interviews, talked briefly to a national television crew, and then walked out of the locker room, down a Verizon Center hallway, still half-dressed. He turned a corner and headed into the family lounge, where he was greeted with a rousing ovation.
At that point, no doubt, he told the happy clappers that they were cheering for the wrong guy. Why would they cheer for someone who never scores the big goal?