When Washington Capitals center Nicklas Backstrom had his day with the Stanley Cup in Sweden in early August, he started counting.
One, two, three …
Carolina captain Justin Williams’s name is etched onto the Cup in three places, and Backstrom made it a point to find each one — once from the Hurricanes’ lone 2006 Cup title and twice, in 2012 and 2014, from his time with the Los Angeles Kings.
Backstrom took a picture of each and texted it to Williams. It was a simple gesture, one that implied: I see you and your accomplishments. Now my name is finally on it, too.
“Obviously when he was here, I mean, we loved him,” Backstrom said.
Williams, 37, was with the Capitals from 2015 to 2017, bringing three Stanley Cups’ worth of experience and a Conn Smythe Trophy with him. His leadership and championship experience added to a formidable team peppered with talent and optimism that it could finally win an elusive title, but the Capitals ultimately fell short in the second round to Pittsburgh — twice.
And while the veteran right winger signed with Carolina, where he had played from 2004 to 2009, in free agency in 2017, Capitals players agree Williams had a lasting influence on a Washington team that won the franchise’s first Stanley Cup title last year.
“I would say that he definitely had an impact on that,” Capitals Coach Todd Reirden said. “He has a very strong character, understanding of what it takes to win the Stanley Cup, and he tried his best to talk about it and express it and share those experiences every way he could with us. We weren’t able to do it with him, but I can tell you that it made an impact on our team.”
Now, as the Capitals continue their first-round series against Carolina in the Stanley Cup playoffs, after holding on for a 4-2 win against the Hurricanes on Thursday in Game 1, their history with Williams is shelved with a mere asterisk. Williams has moved on, again igniting a nontraditional hockey market and bringing the franchise back to the playoffs for the first time since 2009. And Williams got into it with his old teammates early in Game 1, displaying the grittiness and pestering style of play that have spearheaded his playoff efficiency.
“You aspire to win. That is what you want to do, and we haven’t had the opportunity to do that in quite some time,” said Williams, who scored 23 goals this season. “You got to earn the right to have it, so we are obviously excited to be back in the playoffs, but that obviously isn’t the end goal.”
For the Capitals, Carolina’s success with Williams at the helm has come as no surprise. Defenseman Brooks Orpik, who like Williams came to the Capitals with a Stanley Cup ring in hand (Pittsburgh, 2009), recognized Williams’s approach to the game was something players admired and tried to emulate.
“The thing with Willie that sticks out the most is his competitiveness on the ice and off the ice,” Orpik said. “It doesn’t matter if you are playing golf or cards or anything; he really wants to win bad. He doesn’t take it well if he doesn’t win, but I mean that in the best way possible. It is infectious around the group and kind of pushes everybody to be better.”
Williams, with whom the Capitals FaceTimed in the early morning hours as they partied in Las Vegas after they won the Stanley Cup, remains tight with many Washington players. The morning of Game 1, Williams told reporters he followed the Capitals’ Cup run last year “very closely.”
“I followed everything,” Williams said. “I am a fan of the game also but last year was a fan of them.”
When told by a reporter that many Capitals players credit Williams with helping them win the Cup last season, the veteran humorously started to roll his eyes.
“I’m not going to make this a kumbaya-type thing,” Williams said. “Obviously I have a lot of respect for what they did last year and I have a lot of really good friends on that team and I was very happy for them, but that was last year.”
While last year is last year, Capitals forward T.J. Oshie said if there was one player from whom anyone should take advice on the playoffs, it would be Williams — or Stick, as they like to call him. Williams spoke when needed, Oshie said, but it was his play that always was able to rise to the occasion. The Capitals even put one of Williams’s refrains — “Own the big moments” — on team shirts during the 2017 postseason.
“That’s something that we all tried to emulate, you know; last year some guys did a great job of doing that,” Oshie said. “But it is something special and something not every guy can do. And he’s one of those guys that can do it.”
To the younger players, Williams — with his playoff experience and “Mr. Game 7” nickname — was seen as a motivator. Forward Andre Burakovsky, in only his second NHL season when Williams joined the team, said the veteran was able to help him improve. Burakovsky, who frequently was paired with a combination of Williams and center Evgeny Kuznetsov, scored a career-high 17 goals during the 2015-16 season, with 21 assists.
“[Williams] is a great teammate; he has the right blend of leadership, have fun, compete,” Capitals General Manager Brian MacLellan said. “He really senses the tone of an organization, of a team, where they are at in the games and playoffs, and he provides — and he did provide us with that — leadership. And he is doing the same thing at Carolina now, so he’s just a great guy to have on your team.”
And Williams’s teachings aren’t done yet. While the Capitals hold a 1-0 advantage, Backstrom will head into Saturday’s Game 2 with one of Williams’s often-used phrases in the back of his mind.
“He always said, ‘In the playoffs, momentum is dead after the win,’” Backstrom said. “… He would always reset and go start from zero again.”