RALEIGH — Mark Messier. Wayne Gretzky. Bobby Orr. Gordie Howe.
Take your pick — none of them have the Game 7 resume of Hurricanes captain Justin Williams.
Twenty-five years ago, Messier famously guaranteed victory for the Rangers in Game 6 of their Eastern Conference Final matchup with the New Jersey Devils, then notched a hat trick in the win and followed it up with an assist in a 2-1 Game 7 victory.
The Great One, Orr and Mr. Hockey are arguably the three greatest players to ever lace up skates, and Gretzky’s Game 7 credentials, in particular, are extremely good: six goals, six assists and 12 points in six Game 7s.
But there’s a reason Williams has earned the nickname Mr. Game 7.
“He’s been our leader, obviously, and you can’t say enough good things about what he’s done for the group,” said Hurricanes coach Rod Brind’Amour, a teammate of Williams when he had a goal and two assists in Game 7 of the Eastern Conference Final against Buffalo in 2006, and again 18 days later when Williams had the Cup-clinching empty-net goal in Game 7 against Edmonton.
“He lives for these moments. Everyone lives for these moments, he’s just risen to the occasion. Everyone can have a couple games, but he’s done it for a long time. So obviously we’re hoping he’s got one more left in him.”
The Hurricanes need another clutch performance out of Williams after Carolina held serve at home Monday night and beat the defending Stanley Cup champion Washington Capitals, 5-2, to force Game 7 at Capital One Arena on Wednesday night.
It will be the ninth Game 7 of the first-year captain’s career, and he’ll face the team with which he suffered his only loss in the situation for which he has become synonymous — Washington, where he played two seasons but missed out on the Capitals finally getting over the hump and winning an elusive title last season.
Now he’s looking to make Washington the latest division winner to fall in this postseason’s topsy-turvy first round.
“You learn a lot about people when it’s win or go home, whether it’s us or them,” Williams said following Carolina’s Game 6 win.
Williams is one of four players on the Hurricanes roster to have won a Stanley Cup, with fellow Game 6 goal scorers Jordan Staal and Teuvo Teravainen, and defenseman Trevor van Riemsdyk — playing arguably his best hockey in two seasons in Raleigh — helping lead the way for the young Hurricanes.
“There are guys that have been there, and it’s kind of the yin and the yang,” Brind’Amour said. “We’ve got guys that’ve been there, and we’ve got guys that have not even sniffed it. And those guys that have done it before, we rely a lot on. … They all help. They get it. And it’s leaking through the whole room, and I think that’s why we’re still playing right now.”
It permeates from no one more than Williams, the lone “graybeard” in a locker room of fresh faces who may or may not be able to grow playoff facial hair.
His teammates know.
“I haven’t played in one of those before at any level,” said Jordan Martinook, who played Game 6 on one good leg after being hurt in Game 4. “So, take some learning from Mr. Game 7, but we’re going to put our best foot forward and see where it takes us.”
His coach knows.
“I think he just lives for these moments,” Brind’Amour said on Tuesday. “He gets it that there’s so many games in your career that you play, and there’s only a certain amount that actually mean something and that you can remember.
“These Game 7s are those. Game 6 (Monday) was our Game 7 up to that point, and we had to have it. And we gotta have another one.”
His opponents and the rest of the hockey universe know.
“We know he’s going to show up,” Washington goalie Braden Holtby said ahead of the Capitals loss to Pittsburgh in 2015, Williams’ only Game 7 blemish, “but we can’t lean on him too much. We need to have the full group if we’re going to have success.”
It’s advice the Hurricanes will need to follow because Williams — regardless of how heroic he can be — won’t knock out the defending champs on his own.
Case in point: The last time Carolina was in a Game 7, it took 35-year-old veteran Scott Walker scoring his first career playoff goal to lead the Hurricanes past the Bruins. That improved the Hurricanes’ record in Game 7s to 4-0.
That was Carolina’s last playoff win — until this series.
And now Williams — who was gone to Los Angeles by then, on a path to winning his second and third Cup, along with a Conn Smythe Trophy — is back where the legend began. In the twilight of his career, he is trying to — along with his coach, former teammate and friend — teach a new generation of Hurricanes how to win.
“Sometimes it’s just one team that’s win or go home. Now it’s both of them,” Williams said. “We’re just happy to play another game.”