Two springs ago, with the Washington Capitals absent from the postseason and organizational shake-ups imminent, Karl Alzner watched the Los Angeles Kings survive three straight Game 7s en route to the Stanley Cup finals and wished he held an all-access, behind-the-scenes pass. Just once, Alzner told friends and family, he wanted to hear how the Kings talked inside their dressing room. How they handled large deficits or blown leads. How champions acted under duress.
“I want to see what that reaction is,” Alzner said. “I know how ours is, and I think it’s really good at a lot of times, but I’m wondering if it’s different. That’s something you don’t really find out unless you’re with those guys or on one of those teams.”
Imagine the defenseman’s thrill this summer, then, when the Capitals lured the most decorated member from that enchanted, historic run, bringing aboard the man nicknamed “Mr. Game 7” for his success in such situations. Here came forward Justin Williams, a three-time Stanley Cup winner and 2014 playoffs MVP, riding into the city burdened by enough winner-take-all dread, yoked to a narrative he would greatly prefer to ignore.
“Well, I mean, maybe I bring a little bit of comfort, as a guy who’s been there and gone all the way,” Williams said last week. “But listen, this is new for me. This is a new team, and I’m just trying to fit in and find my role as best as I can.”
“Hopefully a little magic in Game 7, right?” a reporter prodded.
“Uhh,” Williams said, more worn than annoyed at the question. “Whatever.”
Inside the Capitals’ dressing room, though, a quiet curiosity — if not a dash of idolatry — accompanied the 33-year-old’s arrival on July 1. Not even Alzner, whose locker stall sits next to Williams’s, has outright asked the right winger about his postseason success, not this early into their time together, and damned if Williams will volunteer such information to a relatively unfamiliar group.
During a recent introductory team meeting, Coach Barry Trotz made mention of Williams’s three rings, two more than the rest of the roster combined. Look up to him, Trotz told the Capitals, and help him win a fourth.
“You could tell he was a little bit shy, a little bit nervous,” forward Tom Wilson recalled. “He’s a humble guy. You could see him get a little bit red. That’s what you want with the guy. He’s got three rings and he still wants another one and he still takes it as something so special.”
Still they wonder. About the 14 points in seven career Game 7s, all victories, an NHL record. About how the Kings managed overcoming a three-game series deficit against the San Jose Sharks in the first round, rebounding from dropping three straight to Anaheim in the second round and brushing aside Game 5 and 6 defeats against Chicago, the defending Stanley Cup champions, in the Western Conference finals.
About how Williams’s teams accomplished what the Capitals, losers in three of their past four Game 7s, including in the Eastern Conference semifinals this May against the New York Rangers, could not.
“Everyone wants to know what magic he has, what it’s like,” Trotz said. “I want him to talk about all the good stories, those tipping-point moments where you feel like you’re not going to be able to do it, then they end up doing it.”
Even before making his preseason debut Tuesday, his presence held clout. Several teammates compared his quiet-but-firm, lead-by-example approach to defenseman Brooks Orpik, the only other skater with a Stanley Cup ring. Defenseman Matt Niskanen mentioned his crisp practice habits. Last weekend, with his wife and children out of town, Williams went out to dinner with Wilson, forward Michael Latta and several other younger teammates destined for the minor leagues.
“It’s so hard to just get to the dance, the Stanley Cup final, not many people have even done that,” Wilson said. “There are guys who’ve played 14 years in the league, never had a chance to win a Cup, so when you have guys who have had that opportunity, two or three times, you’ve got to take everything you can from them and learn everything you can from them.”
Try telling Williams that, though, and he’ll brush the notion aside. A full regular season stands between the Capitals and the playoffs. Maybe the time will come for such talks. Just not this soon.
“Listen, I’m very humbled that you’d think people would come up to me and ask my opinions of things and I’m more than willing to give it, but I’m coming here to find my spot,” he said. “I’m not a savior by any means of the word. I’m just coming here to be a piece with this team, which I think is a championship team.”
Capitals note: In Boston for their second preseason game, the Capitals lost to the Bruins, 2-1. The game was tied, 1-1, after regulation, so it was decided in the new three-on-three overtime, when David Pastrnak scored his second goal of the game 12 seconds into the overtime.
After two scoreless periods, both teams scored their first goal of the game within two minutes of each other, first with Pastrnak finding the net in four-on-four. Washington defenseman Nate Schmidt’s wrist shot on a power play was the equalizer shortly thereafter. Michael Latta left the game late in the third period with a lower-body injury and will be re-evaluated Wednesday.
Isabelle Khurshudyan contributed to this report.