Thursday, May 31, 2012

For Justin Williams ... Right Place. Right time.

By Larry Wigge

Right place. Right time.

We follow the puck all the time, it's just plain common sense. So why not trace the play back to about 10 seconds before the play happened.

Justin Williams was facing the Los Angeles Kings' bench, digging and battling for a loose puck with New Jersey defenseman Bryce Salvador and forward Dainius Zubrus with his back turned to the open ice.

Williams admitted he never actually saw Anze Kopitar streaking toward Martin Brodeur with his own two eyes, though he chipped the puck to an open area.

"I just had a feeling," Williams said. "I kind of thought he might be there alone."

Kopitar went in alone on Brodeur and deposited the puck into the net for the game winning goal at 8:13 of overtime.

Williams then continued, "In the playoffs, everything is going to be tight. One play ... one pass ... one hit ... is important."

The 30-year-old right winger who comes from Cobourg, Ontario, always seems to be in the right place at the right time. In 2006, he had 31 goals and 45 assists in helping the Carolina Hurricanes to the Stanley Cup. He also chipped in the seven goals and 11 assists in 25 playoff games. This season, six seasons later, Williams had 25 goals and 51 assists to equal a career-high points total. His assist Wednesday night in Game 1 of the Cup finals gives him two goals and 10 assists in 15 playoff games.

"It's not a dream," said Williams, who is now eight years removed from Philadelphia and won a Cup in Carolina in 2006. "We won Game 1. We've got something good going here, but . . . it's one game. We know it's going to be an extremely tough series. If we can keep going, it will be a heck of a story. If we lose, it will be a heck of a collapse."

Sound familiar. Right place. Right time.

"There are certain players you see in the draft and want, but don't get a chance to pick them for one reason or another ... and then you get a call a few years later and suddenly that young, talented kid you wanted so badly becomes part of a trade conversation," Kings GM Dean Lombardi said. "I was a scout with the Flyers in 2004, when (Hurricanes GM) Jim Rutherford called Bobby Clarke (my boss at the time) ... once again. Rutherford had to have Justin. But I knew I knew how much Bobby liked him. He had big plans for him."

Rutherford's eyes lit up and a smile crossed his face. 

"It was just our luck that the Flyers ran into some injuries on their defense," Rutherford continued. "Bob Clarke called to see if I'd part with Danny Markov. I paused for just a second and then said, 'I will if you give me Justin Williams.' I know Bob didn't want to part with Justin. But his call came at the right time for us, because of the injuries the Flyers had on their back line." 

Same thing happened with the Kings, when Carolina called Lombardi with the same kind of request in March of 2009 at the trade deadline. The Hurricanes needed Patrick O'Sullivan to complete a trade to reacquire Erik Cole from Edmonton. Williams was actually on the injured reserve list at the time. But we wanted him ... and it was the right time.

Right time. Right place.

Williams was just saying the other day that it seems like just yesterday that he was pretending to play for the Stanley Cup with his friends in the basement of the family's Cobourg home.

"There were holes in the dry wall of our basement from where we shot the puck," he said, laughing. 

Craig and Denise Williams, Justin's parents, don't mind the basement repairs any longer now that their son is playing for the real Stanley Cup and had successful scored the tying goal, 4-4, en route to Carolina's 5-4 victory in Game 1 of the 2006 Cup finals.

"My mom and dad were like basket cases during the Buffalo series, pacing outside the house wondering what kind of a list they would have to leave," he laughed. "You know ... important things ... like yard work in case they had to come to Raleigh for the finals." 

Williams only showed promise, not results after being chosen in the first round of the 2000 draft, 28th overall, by the Flyers. He had 12 and 17 goals in his first two seasons in Philadelphia, before dropping to eight in an injury-plagued 2002-03 season. He then combined for 11 goals between the Flyers and Hurricanes in 2003-04, before he netted 14 goals in 43 games for Lulea HF of the Swedish Elite League during the lockout in 2005.

"He showed up every game and played the same way," linemate Rod Brind'Amour said at the time. "Obviously he's got skill and can skate, but he plays every shift of every game. To me, that's why he's had the numbers he's had.

"You've never saw him go 10 games without points. He was there every night. That's a sign of a great, young hockey player."

Speed is what attracted the Flyers to draft him in the first round in 2000. And it's speed, size and a scoring touch that Rutherford always had in mind for the 6-1, 190-pounder. 

It's funny, but I remember Jeremy Roenick telling me a few years back when he was playing on a line with Justin that the youngster reminded him of a younger version of himself ... about 10 years earlier when he had the skating legs that Williams has. 

"He's a tenacious, hard-forechecking, two-way hockey player," Roenick told me. "And you watch, he's going to turn his tenacity into scoring opportunities and points in the near future." 

"Justin creates a lot of opportunities for us -- like tonight -- with his speed," said an admiring veteran teammate Mark Recchi. 

A Montreal Canadiens fan as a kid, Williams said he modeled himself after Owen Nolan, a gritty, two-way player who can score goals had been an effective power forward for Quebec/Colorado, San Jose and Toronto.

Right place. Right time

Williams remembers every game of the Carolina Hurricanes' 25-game grind through the 2006 playoffs. He knows all about the blood, sweat and exhaustion necessary to raise the Stanley Cup.

That's why he realizes the NHL playoffs aren't usually as easy as the Kings have made them look so far.

"If you told anybody, let alone us in the dressing room, that we'd have a place in the finals as an eighth seed, I would have only told you that you were crazy if you said it took 14 games," Williams said.

"But we're here for a reason," he continued. "We've battled our tails off here the whole season and things have come together here. We go into every series thinking it's going to be seven games. It's just so far, they haven't worked out that way."

Said Lombardi, "Williams is a really smart player. He can do a lot of things for you and, again, he has proven he can play in the playoffs. I think he's a better fit for us." 

For Justin Williams it has always been right for him. Right time. Right place.

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