Justin Williams doesn't lose in Game 7. Except that one time.
The player who earned the “Mr. Game 7” moniker for going 7-0 with seven goals and seven assists in winner-take-all situations lost in a Game 7 for the first time with the Washington Capitals in 2017. Now he's back as captain of the Carolina Hurricanes looking to hand his most recent team another crushing playoff loss in a catalog full of them.
“You learn a lot about people when it's win or go home, when it's us or them,” Williams said. “Anything can happen next game, and we're happy to be playing it.”
The Capitals blew a chance to eliminate the Hurricanes on the road Monday and will now host Game 7 at home Wednesday night (7:30 p.m. EDT, NBCSN). After Washington exorcised its demons against Pittsburgh, won Game 7 of the Eastern Conference final at Tampa Bay and lifted the Stanley Cup last year, there isn't the same doom and gloom hovering over a franchise that for years fell short of expectations.
Coach Todd Reirden, who was Barry Trotz's top assistant the past four seasons, believes this is another chance for his team to make a statement that the “Oh, no” fears of the past are gone.
“When you don't have success for a number of continued years back-to-back-to-back of not having that success, then it can't help but creep into your mind,” Reirden said Tuesday. “I'm hoping the opposite will happen now.”
During the Alex Ovechkin and Nicklas Backstrom era that saw the team's first playoff appearance in 2008, the Capitals are 4-7 in Game 7; that includes a 3-4 record with goaltender Braden Holtby in net dating to 2012 and 2-2 since the bulk of this core group started playing together in 2015.
The Capitals could have 17 players on the ice Wednesday who were part of a 4-0 Game 7 victory at the Lightning last year. That doesn't hurt.
“We've been here before,” 2018 playoff hero Devante Smith-Pelly said. “We've done it before. I think that's everyone's mindset. I don't think there's going to be nerves or anything like that. We've already been through all this kind of stuff. It's just going to be: prepare like it's any other game and try and play our best.”
If Carolina brings its best and pulls off the upset, it will mark the first time in NHL history that all four division champions lose in the first round after Tampa Bay, Nashville and Calgary were already eliminated. Reirden wants his players to enjoy the excitement of a Game 7, and Hurricanes coach Rod Brind'Amour can tell his guys to empty the tank after getting this far.
“Everybody knows there's one team going home after the game,” Brind'Amour said. “You just know this is it. There is no tomorrow. You're not playing these guys again. Let it all out there.”
In the first playoff series between the Capitals and Hurricanes, this will also be the first Game 7 with two rookie coaches since 1990. It's the 17th overall in Washington franchise history and the eighth for Carolina.
For Holtby, who has a 2.29 goals-against average and .934 save percentage in Game 7s in the NHL, none of the previous situations matter this time.
“Every game is different,” Holtby said. “You take what you learned in a series, and you put it all into one game. You approach it as if you're going to play your best game in any situation. You don't put too much pressure on yourself, but you go out and do everything you can to help the team win.”
Winning for the Capitals looks like Holtby being himself, Ovechkin and Backstrom continuing their strong series and potentially someone like Evgeny Kuznetsov, Jakub Vrana or trade-deadline pickup Carl Hagelin stepping up. With a personal 8-1 record in Game 7, Hagelin is tied for the most victories of any player in that situation.
Williams can join that club by knocking off the team he spent two seasons with but never got past the second round. For the Hurricanes to get into the second round, it might mean goalie Petr Mrazek doing to the Capitals what Jaroslav Halak did in Game 7 with Montreal in 2010 by making 40-plus saves — or potentially another heroic playoff performance from Williams, who still has a chance to add to his legend.
“He lives for these moments,” Brind'Amour said. “He's just risen to the occasion. You know everyone can have a couple games and you say, `Oh, good,' but he's done it for a long time, so obviously we're hoping he's got one more left in him.”