RALEIGH, N.C. — Hurricanes captain Justin Williams has been through the playoff grind before. But the veteran’s frustrations reached an all-time high during the last two games of the Eastern Conference Finals against the Boston Bruins.
Williams, aka Mr. Game 7, went out of character beginning in Game 2 when he retaliated to a Brad Marchand cross-check. The Bruins took a 4-0 lead on a Matt Grzelcyk’s goal on the ensuing power play.
Brad Marchand pesters Justin Williams into a penalty — then signals the Carolina captain to the box. pic.twitter.com/0OPveb224V— Conor Ryan (@ConorRyan_93) May 12, 2019
That moment served as a microcosm to Carolina’s Mother’s Day performance at TD Garden. And it prompted a rather unflattering postgame response from Williams inside the visiting locker room.
“I think, just all in all, we’ve got to rediscover who we are,” Williams said following Game 2. You know, you spend all this time off leading up, and everyone writing articles about how great we are, and you come out and sometimes you’ve got to eat a poop sandwich.”
The desperate Hurricanes listened to their 37-year-old leader. They came out flying in Game 3 Tuesday night doing everything but score on Tuukka Rask.
Williams, however, didn’t have the same poise. He followed a two-penalty outing in Game 2 with three penalties in the first 20 minutes of Game 3.
Torey Krug:— Evan Marinofsky (@emarinofsky) May 15, 2019
Justin Williams: pic.twitter.com/BGxBf4RDle
“All you’re trying to do during the series and during the game is to try and create an edge somewhere. That’s what every player is trying to do is look for an edge, look for something that’s going to give you the advantage,” Williams said a day after Boston’s 2-1 Game 3 win. “Obviously taking penalties is not an advantage and you have to own that.”
Williams, again, left Game 3 with a bitter taste in his mouth. He’s spending more time in the box than he is helping his team win. The visible frustration is there with every shift and post-whistle scrum, including punching David Backes in the back of the head in front of Hurricanes netminder Curtis McElhinney.
Torey Krug saw that Williams punch on Backes first hand. Heck, he drew all three penalties on Williams in Game 3 — roughing, holding the stick, and elbowing. Nothing phased the 5-foot-9 defenseman, but he envisioned himself having a similar mentality if the roles were reversed.
“I’d probably do the same. So, you know, it is what it is,” Krug said. “You’ve just got to battle and play on through it. It’s part of the game, and like I said, if I was on the other side, I’d probably do the same thing.”
The Bruins persevered and played on in following a rough 20 minutes. They now find themselves one win away from their third Stanley Cup Finals appearance of the decade.
Yet, Don Cherry didn’t appreciate the Bruins goading Williams into uncharacteristic penalties. Quite the take coming from a former Bruins coach who famously called the “frontrunning” Hurricanes a “bunch of jerks” for their postgame celebrations.
“Ladies and gentlemen, I am for the Boston Bruins 100 percent. I’m 100 percent sure that they’re going to win this series,” the colorful Cherry said during the famed first intermission Coach’s Corner on Hockey Night in Canada.
“But, you never, ever upset a guy like Williams…He’s got that team pumped up right now and that’s why they got 20 shots to six. It’s because of him. Think about that if you ever did that to Stevie Yzerman. There’d be a riot.”
The outspoken Canadian commentator didn’t necessarily have a bad take here. But the timing of his thoughts on Williams could’ve improved for sure.
Yet, the young and desperate Hurricanes will look to Williams in Game 4. After all, he’s been in this scenario before during his time with the Los Angeles Kings, including 2014. All they did was overcome a 3-0 first-round deficit against the San Jose Sharks en route to their second Stanley Cup win in three years.
The Bruins held a 3-0 lead before too. A small handful of vets remain from the 2010 club that lost four straight the Philadelphia Flyers. A few more are still with the club that bounced back with four-straight wins over the Flyers in 2011 and a surprising sweep of the 2013 Pittsburgh Penguins.
But rattling Williams might not be the wisest move come Thursday night. The last thing they want to do is give the Williams-led Hurricanes any hope.