In hindsight, we all should have seen this coming. It would be crazy to think Justin Williams’ first game back with the Carolina Hurricanes would end any other way.
With the Hurricanes and New York Islanders deadlocked 1-1 after 60 minutes of hockey, five minutes of overtime and seven undecided rounds of the shootout, Williams got the tap from the head coach.
Islanders goalie Thomas Greiss had been nearly impenetrable in Carolina’s previous attempts, aggressively challenging the Hurricanes’ shooters by pushing out far above his crease and swatting away pucks like flies.
Williams’ teammates stood in anticipation as the Caniacs at PNC Arena rose to their feet as well, showering the 38-year-old with a booming ovation. And just like he hadn’t missed a beat, Williams honed in on Greiss, pulled the puck back, and wristed a bullet right between the goaltender’s legs. At the other end, James Reimer denied Islanders captain Anders Lee to secure the win for Carolina.
The hockey gods have been busy writing the new script for the 2019-20 Hurricanes season ever since Williams signed a one-year contract to return to the team he captained to the Eastern Conference Final just last May. There’s simply no other explanation for the storybook ending that occurred Sunday night in front of the Hurricanes’ hometown fans as Williams made his long-anticipated return.
Williams Hasn’t Lost a Beat
It hasn’t always been the case this season, but the Hurricanes looked energized from the drop of the puck, likely because they had some extra motivation tonight. They scored their only goal at 5:45 of the first period before the Islanders lulled them into their defensive trap style for the rest of the contest.
Williams took his first shift – a rather uneventful one – a few minutes into the game, and in total was limited to 3:14 of time-on-ice (TOI) in period one, playing on the fourth line with Lucas Wallmark and Brock McGinn. His ice time increased as the game progressed, even when Brind’Amour shortened his bench late in the third period.
“He certainly didn’t look out of place right from the start… I expected him to be a little more rusty, to be honest with you, just with the pace, because that was a fast game too. But he fit right in.”– Rod Brind’Amour (from ‘Williams returns, plays hero in shootout win over Islanders,’ North State Journal, 01/19/2020)
Williams approached every shift with intensity, setting up several scoring chances throughout the game. In the defensive zone, he won numerous puck battles against Islanders players and looked comfortable moving the puck up ice, even when getting pressured by opposing forecheckers.
For the man nicknamed “Mr. Game 7”, the shootout-winning goal was just the latest tally in the column of clutch moments he’s created throughout his 19-year career. And to top it all off, Williams led the Hurricanes in a Military Appreciation Night storm surge, as they saluted the veterans in the building, overseas and across the country.
Overall, Williams logged just 13:06 TOI, lowest among Hurricanes forwards, and finished the game with three shots and one hit. He didn’t get power-play time or a shift in overtime, but he came up money in the shootout. Brind’Amour’s usage of Williams in this capacity was the perfect re-introduction for him. The win, and his strong play, are huge positives for the Hurricanes as the All-Star break approaches.
Martinook the Odd Man Out
We knew somebody would have to sit for Williams to draw back in, and Martinook ended up pulling the short straw. Offensively, Martinook has floundered so far this season. He has just two goals in 33 games coming off a career-high 15 goals last season.
In all other areas, however, Martinook is an asset to his team. He has a huge personality with an infectious enthusiasm that gets his teammates fired up. On the ice, he plays a similar game – he’s one of the energizers who sparks the crowd and gets the electricity flowing through the air.
He was awarded an “A” before the season, becoming an alternate captain along with All-Star defenseman Jaccob Slavin. But with Williams slotting in, somebody had to sit, and it was simply Martinook’s time. That doesn’t put him on the outside, however. Every locker room needs a guy like him, and there are several other Hurricanes who have been just as, or more ineffective offensively.
As the season continues, we shouldn’t be surprised if even Williams gets some nights off when the schedule gets heavy. The Hurricanes have a big Western Conference road trip coming up and play two back-to-backs at the end of February.
Toronto Maple Leafs veteran Jason Spezza typically only plays one night of back-to-backs, while scheduling off the other for maintenance. This could be the kind of route Williams goes to ensure his body is in top shape as the season continues to wind down.
Reimer Stands Tall
Williams may have plunged the dagger, but Reimer was the workhorse for much of this game, stopping 26 of 27 shots and six of eight shootout attempts to bag the two points for the Hurricanes. He also earned himself first-star honors for the second time in his last three starts.
Throughout the past eight weeks, Reimer has been the better of the Hurricanes’ goaltenders by far. Over his last 12 starts, Reimer has rolled to an 8-2-1 record, posting a 2.14 goals-against average, .931 save percentage, and three shutouts.
Goaltending has been inconsistent most of the year, but Reimer’s stock is trending up right now, and the Hurricanes need strong goaltending with how dry their offense has been.
Hurricanes’ Offense Still Missing in Action
Losing defenseman Dougie Hamilton to a broken fibula was devastating news for the Hurricanes and their fans and, unfortunately, it comes at a time where goals are scarce.
The Hurricanes have scored eight goals in their last six games – not including empty-netters – but are still miraculously 3-2-1 in that span. Their goaltending has kept them above water, but if they can’t figure out their scoring woes soon, they’ll quickly drown.
Andrei Svechnikov got on the board Sunday night for the first time in seven games, scoring his 19th of the season. Sebastian Aho has also recently gone cold – he has just one goal in his last nine.
The Metropolitan Division is extremely competitive this year – it has the highest representation in the NHL’s top-10, with the Washington Capitals, Pittsburgh Penguins, Islanders, and Columbus Blue Jackets. That leaves the Hurricanes barely clinging to a wild card spot, and squandering yet another point Sunday to the Islanders only makes their road more difficult -Carolina’s 5-10-1 record against divisional opponents is killing their playoff hopes.
The Hurricanes have one final game before the All-Star weekend – they’ll host the Winnipeg Jets Tuesday night in Raleigh.