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'Mr. Game 7' steadying figure for Hurricanes

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Carolina Hurricanes' Jordan Staal, right, Justin Williams (14) and Brock McGinn (23) celebrate Staal's winning goal against the Washington Capitals' as Capitals' Matt Niskanen (2) skates away during the third period of Game 6 of an NHL hockey first-round playoff series in Raleigh, N.C., Monday, April 22, 2019. (AP Photo/Gerry Broome)

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By PATRICK MASON
Sports Writer

Tuesday, April 23, 2019

RALEIGH — Justin Williams is a little more than a year removed from facing some difficult truths about his hockey mortality.

The Carolina Hurricanes right winger, now a 37-year-old looking for a fourth Stanley Cup before age catches up to his long career, searched for perspective last April as Carolina missed the playoffs for the ninth consecutive season.

“It certainly hurts a lot more,” he said then, his first year back in Raleigh. “Especially me on the back end of my career, at my age, not playing playoffs, (the postseason) is what I strive for now.”

Williams has played nearly two full seasons worth of playoff games (146), and for the man known as ‘Mr. Game 7’ to not be in the postseason seemed like a waste. For both player and employer.

Yet he didn’t come back to Carolina for a farewell tour. This was a team on the rise, a team that felt that next year would be the one where PNC Arena saw playoff hockey again.

Next year has arrived and so have the Hurricanes.

Following Monday’s 5-2, come-from-behind win in Game 6 over the Washington Capitals in Raleigh, the Hurricanes have the defending champs staggering.

“Anything can happen in Game 7. It’s what you dream of playing in as a kid,” said Jordan Staal, who scored the game-winning goal with 16:09 left in the third period. “I know everyone in this group is excited. It’s been a long time coming. You could feel it, I could feel it.”

The Capitals felt it, too. For evidence, look no further than the Capitals star player Alex Ovechkin, whose emotions boiled over and was ejected in the final minute for mocking an official after taking a slashing penalty. For Ovechkin, who baited and injured Andrei Svechnikov in a fist fight earlier in the series, it wasn’t supposed to go this way.

What opened as a 2-0 series lead for the Capitals, the Hurricanes, who reached the playoffs via wildcard berth, won all three games on their home ice to force a decisive Game 7 on Wednesday in D.C.

“We answered the bell,” Williams said on Monday. “I said from the start of the series, if they’re going to knock us out, we’re not going to let it be easy. Let’s go play another game.”

The Carolina captain, who won a Cup with the team in 2006, and two more with the Los Angeles Kings in 2012 and 2014, will have another opportunity to add to his big-game lore.

Williams’ teams are 7-1 in Game 7s, and has 14 points in such games — the most in NHL history — and his seven goals are tied for the most. His coach, and former teammate on the ‘06 Cup-winning team, Rod Brind’Amour, appreciates the intangibles that come with having experience in the locker room.

“It’s valuable to have guys that have been there before. We don’t have a ton of those but we do have Mr. Game 7, everyone’s calling him that,” Brind’Amour said. “It’s nice for our young guys to look across the room and see a guy approaching the game the same way.”

Yet experience can only carry a team so far. Take it from Williams, who knows that something switches on when facing elimination. Now, two switches are on as no longer is Carolina the lone team on the verge of an early summer.

“You learn a lot about people when it’s win or go home, when it’s us or them,” Williams said. “Now, tonight, it was us. And now it’s them too, so anything can happen in the next game and we’re happy to be playing in it.”

It was Williams’ goal, a redirect off a Brett Pesce slap shot that caromed off the captain’s stick in such a way that Washington goalie Braden Holtby had no chance to stop, that turned the fortune of the game — and maybe the series.

Williams’ goal came less than two minutes removed from a would-be game-tying goal from Ovechkin that was waved off due to interference. Instead of a 3-3 tie, the Hurricanes led by a goal, then two, and later three when Dougie Hamilton’s open-netter from just past the blue line nestled in the twine.

Goalie Petr Mrazek and the defense withstood a late, frantic Capitals flurry that never made materialized into goals, and the 27-year-old net-minder’s 23 saves in all made sure the series would not end in Raleigh.

“This is the type of adversity you expect to go through in the playoffs,” Capitals coach Todd Reirden said. “We worked hard all year to give ourselves a chance to get home ice. That’s where we’ve played our best hockey.”

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