One day after his 19th birthday, Justin Williams played in his first NHL game, scoring a goal against Felix Potvin and assisting on two others in the Philadelphia Flyers’ 6-3 win over the Vancouver Canucks.
The date was Oct. 5, 2000.
Fifteen years later, before playing in his first game with the Capitals after signing a two-year deal, Williams was asked if he knew the significance of playing every game this season.
“Yep,” he said with a smile. “I do.”
Tonight against the Anaheim Ducks, Williams, 34, will play in his 82nd game this season and the 1,000th game of his NHL career, which began with a flair, was interrupted by injury and has included his name on the Stanley Cup three times and a Conn Smythe Trophy as playoff MVP.
“I think he's a perfect fit for our team,” Capitals captain Alex Ovechkin said. “A perfect guy in the locker room. He's the kind of guy who knows exactly what he has to do. The people around him know he's a tremendous work-ethic guy out there, he tries to win every battle. In front of the net he's outstanding. For his size it's unbelievable what he can do in front of the net.”
In 999 NHL games, Williams has 249 goals and 385 assists for 634 points, a 0.63 point per game average. But in 115 career playoff games, William has 30 goals and 48 assists for 78 points, a 0.68 points per game average. Included in those totals are seven goals and seven assists in seven Game 7s, along with a perfect 7-0 record in the games that matter most.
“He’s unbelievable,” Capitals defenseman Mike Weber said. “What a tremendous veteran guy, an obvious leader. The Cups he has, the experiences he has. I’ve only played with a couple guys that have played 1,000 games and he’s one of the special ones. It’ll be a nice treat for him.”
To celebrate the occasion, the Capitals will hold a pre-game ceremony in which NHL senior vice president of hockey operations Jim Gregory will present Williams with a commemorative crystal from the NHL, and the Capitals will present Williams with a silver stick. Williams, who is nicknamed “Stick,” also will receive a special gift from his teammates.
Capitals right wing T.J. Oshie said it’s Williams’ demeanor on the ice and on the bench that most impresses him.
“He doesn’t ever get too down on himself or anyone else,” said Oshie, who recently played in his 500th NHL game. “It seems when the game elevates and it gets more intense and the game’s on the line, he stays calm and he gets his game elevated. It’s a great trait to have.”
Taken by the Flyers with the 28th pick overall of the 2000 NHL draft, Williams broke his left hand in his rookie season and tore his ACL and MCL in his third season. He was dealt from the Flyers to the Carolina Hurricanes midway through the 2003-04 season for defenseman Danny Markov, a deal the Flyers wuld live to regret.
Williams again was slowed by injury in Carolina, missing time with a second knee surgery and another surgery to repair his Achilles tendon. In 2006 Williams won his first Stanley Cup, sealing the deal with an empty-netter in Game 7 against the Edmonton Oilers.
Less than three years after winning the Cup in Carolina, Williams again was involved in a lopsided trade when he was sent to the L.A. Kings for forward Patrick O’Sullivan and a second-round pick. Again, he made his former team regret losing him, going on to win a pair of Stanley Cups in Los Angeles.
In his past five seasons, Williams has missed just one game and this season he’s having one of his best offensive seasons, with 22 goals and 52 points in 81 games. Williams said the secret to his longevity is his ability to learn to pace himself.
“You figure out what you can do and what you can't do on the ice with regards to hitting, with regards to evading checks, with regards to making plays," he said. "Throughout my career I've learned about the body, learned about what you need to do on the ice and I've been able to stay healthy because of it.
"You go as hard as you can on the ice when you're on there," Williams said. "Pacing yourself is listening to your body and knowing when you need rest, knowing when to take an optional (practice), knowing that you need a good stretch here and there — just little things like that that elongate your career. People say, 'Stretch your legs, stretch your career.’”
Williams has done just that, but says there is something bigger, something shiny and silver, that still drives him.
“As I’ve kind of tried to do throughout my career, I set goals for myself and when I meet that goal I try and get another one,” he said. “A thousand games is certainly on that list and something I can can get to … and then think about playoffs after that.”
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