The Washington Capitals had heard about “Mr. Game 7,” naturally curious about the legend who has an NHL-record 14 postseason points in seven career Game 7s, all victories. A room full of players scarred by playoff disappointment were in awe of their newest teammate, a three-time Stanley Cup winner.
But then the Capitals got to know Justin Williams, with his affinity for memorizing lyrics — he occasionally bursts into song — and trademark dry humor.
“Not what you really expected before you know him as a teammate,” Tom Wilson said. “You see him on another team, ‘Mr. Game 7,’ but then he gets here, and he’s witty and funny and easygoing.”
“He’s ‘Mr. Crossword’ is what he is,” Karl Alzner said with a laugh.
Indeed, Williams’s crossword savvy has fit right in with the team’s other enthusiasts, notably Alzner and John Carlson. After an initial adjustment period, Williams has started to fit in on the ice, too, shedding some of the residual tendencies from his time with the Los Angeles Kings.
The 34-year-old has been Washington’s most productive offseason addition, with seven goals and 10 assists, his highest point-per-game average since the 2010-11 season.
“He’s starting to play more and more the way we play and a little less like the way L.A. plays,” Capitals Coach Barry Trotz said. “There’s nothing wrong with the way they play or anything. It’s just that we coach different styles. He’s getting comfortable with the system, and he’s getting comfortable with his linemates, and I think he’s comfortable with his role on the team.”
Though Williams has gotten hot lately, with five goals in his past nine games, his early season was marred by uncharacteristic defensive-zone turnovers while trying to make plays as he would with the Kings.
Trotz said Los Angeles’s system kept a center strictly in the middle, so when Williams fired to the middle of the ice with no Capital in the vicinity, he understood the reason. He briefly moved Williams from the second line to the third with Jay Beagle and Jason Chimera, but Williams has been back in the top-six forward corps throughout the Capitals’ five-game winning streak.
“The less thinking you can do on the ice and the more reacting, the better you’re going to be, me especially,” Williams said. “I’m an instinctual player. If my brain is kind of configured the way I need it to be, then I’m better than not.”
Williams also had to adjust to how the Capitals broke out of their zone, moving the puck quickly up the ice, while Los Angeles had a tendency to pass more. But Alzner still noticed Williams’s detail in those situations, even when Williams wasn’t happy with his own performance.
“His ability to hold on to the puck and to make plays with it, the small, little savvy plays that you might not always realize makes such a difference breaking out of the zone and keeping possession in zone,” Alzner said. “It’s phenomenal. He’s an amazing player to have on this team.”
Possession is Williams’s strength; according to stats.hockeyanalysis.com, from 2008 to 2014 combined, Williams is first among skaters at even strength with at least 5,000 minutes with a 58.7 Corsi percentage, which measures the percent of shot attempts that go in Williams’s team’s favor when he’s on the ice.
“It’s not going to go your way all of the time,” Williams said. “More often than not, it’s not going to go your way. It’s how you react when it doesn’t go your way that makes you better. I’m learning. It’s my 15th year in the league, and I’m still learning. . . . You’ve just got to work through it and learn the system. As I’ve said since I came, just find my place, fit in and find a role.”
The Capitals are still learning about Williams. Wilson and Michael Latta heard a reference to Williams playing in Philadelphia, and they immediately checked hockeydb.com to see whether that was true. (It is; he was drafted by the Flyers and spent his first four seasons in Philadelphia.)
“He’s really starting to play good hockey,” Wilson said. “He’s a veteran guy, and even himself, I think he said he wasn’t where he wanted to be. You can see the last two or three weeks, he’s been playing unbelievable.”