RALEIGH, N.C. — Justin Williams doesn’t pretend to know any secret way out of this predicament, but the Carolina Hurricanes captain has acquired quite a bit of knowledge over his 18 NHL seasons.
So it’s understandable that the Hurricanes will again look to Williams for guidance, and for hope, with their season on the line in Game 4 of the Eastern Conference Final against the Boston Bruins on Thursday (8 p.m. ET; NBCSN, CBC, SN, TVAS). The Hurricanes are trying to become the fifth team in Stanley Cup Playoff history to win a best-of-7 series after being down 3-0, and Williams played a key role for the most recent one to do it, the 2014 Los Angeles Kings.
“We obviously would’ve rather had won and not be down 3-0, but with being down 3-0 creates an opportunity for yourself and that’s the way you’ve got to look at it,” Williams said Wednesday. “You have to instill a little bit of doubt, and that’s the first step you have to do. But you have to do that by winning a game.”
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The Hurricanes have yet to do that against the Bruins. They played their best game of the series in Game 3 but lost 2-1 and were repeatedly thwarted by Boston goalie Tuukka Rask, who made 20 of his 35 saves in the first period.
Although the task of defeating Rask and the Bruins in four straight games appears daunting, the Hurricanes can’t think that far ahead.
“They’re trying to make you think it’s going to be way too hard to come back and win four games, but we’re not even looking at that, right?” Williams said. “We’ve blocked that out. We’re just looking to win one game and then go from there, and that’s really all it is.”
One win made a difference in 2014 after Williams and the Kings lost the first three games to the San Jose Sharks in the Western Conference First Round. Williams scored his first two goals (and points) of the series in a 6-3 victory in Game 4 at Los Angeles. The Kings went on to outscore the Sharks 12-2 in winning the final three games of the series, which Williams finished with six points (four goals, two assists).
That comeback jumpstarted the Kings’ run to their second Stanley Cup championship in three seasons and propelled Williams to winning the Conn Smythe Trophy as most valuable player in the playoffs. It was the third time Williams won the Stanley Cup, including his first with the Hurricanes in 2006.
That would give him in credibility in any locker room, but particularly with the Hurricanes, a young team (average age of 26) that hadn’t qualified for the playoffs since 2009 before this season.
“He’s been through it,” defenseman Jaccob Slavin said. “He’s been through all the situations, so we definitely looked to him a lot this year and he’s got us to the point where we’re at today. I don’t think we’d be here without his leadership and so to know that he’s been through this situation and he knows how to do it definitely gives a lot of hope to the guys in the room.”
Williams acknowledged he hasn’t had a good series so far. The 37-year-old forward’s lone point was a deflection goal in the third period of a 6-2 loss in Game 2 on Sunday and he’s been called for five minor penalties over the past two games.
He took a retaliatory penalty after scuffling with Bruins agitator Brad Marchand in the second period of Game 2 that led to a Boston power-play goal and was called for three minors (one coincidental) against defenseman Torey Krug during a running battle in the first period of Game 3.
“All you’re trying to do at any point during a series or during a game is you’re just trying to create an edge somewhere,” Williams said. “That’s what every player on the ice is trying to do. Just look for an edge, look for something you can use, look for something that’s going to give you an advantage. Obviously, taking penalties is not an advantage and you have to own that, and I have to own that.”
But Williams has been the Hurricanes rock, and coach Rod Brind’Amour’s right-hand man in the locker room, all season. He’s known when to push them, like the players’ meeting he called in late December when they were struggling and on the verge of losing contact in the playoff race.
He’s mostly been a steadying influence who seems to have said and done all the right things to keep the Hurricanes on the right path. So given his experience with this situation, the Hurricanes couldn’t ask for a better person to lead them now.
“He’s as good as anybody, that’s for sure,” Brind’Amour said. “The fact that he has lived it helps.”
Viewing being down 3-0 as an opportunity puts a positive spin on it, but Williams, who has 28 points (15 goals, 13 assists) in the 24 games he’s played while facing elimination, acknowledged that won’t make overcoming it any easier. He smiled, though, when he borrowed a toothpaste analogy Brind’Amour has used a few times this season when Carolina needed to dig a little deeper.
“You get the (end of) the toothpaste, you can always squeeze a little bit more out of it,” Williams said. “I like Roddy when he said that. So we’re going to try to squeeze as much as we can out of our toothpaste here. We’ve got plenty left in it.”