RALEIGH — Saying the past two weeks have been emotional for the Carolina Hurricanes would be a gross understatement.
What has already been a roller-coaster season switched into another gear with the signing of former captain Justin Williams on Jan. 7. The 38-year-old’s return — he did not sign a new contract this offseason, opting to “step away” from hockey, but did not announce his retirement — always seemed more of a possibility than not, but his return definitely gave his team a boost.
“I think he gave the whole group some life today,” coach Rod Brind’Amour said when Williams participated in his first practice two days after signing. “Every team’s in that dog days right now a little bit. And yet it’s so important to try and get some traction. It was a nice boost for our group, and when he does get in there, I think it will be the same.”
It was — but plenty happened in the 10 days between his return to practice and first game.
The most notable was Jan. 16 in Columbus when the Hurricanes outplayed the Blue Jackets but allowed the go-ahead with 1:41 remaining in a 3-2 loss.
“It’s a tough one,” Brind’Amour said after the loss. “That’s probably our best game of the year, really, as far as playing the way we want to play, and the other team didn’t really have a lot. … It just didn’t go the way it probably should have. I think we were the better team.”
One way in which they didn’t exit the game a better team was the loss of Dougie Hamilton. The team’s star defenseman broke his left fibula during an awkward fall near the sideboards.
It cost Hamilton his first trip to the All-Star Game — partner Jaccob Slavin will take his place in St. Louis this weekend — and, more importantly, keep him out indefinitely. A similar injury to Jordan Staal in the 2014 preseason kept him out of action for just over three months.
“He’s got a road. … It’s going to take some time,” Staal said. “The bone is, obviously, a month and a half minimum, and whatever other damage happened. It’s unfortunate, obviously. He was having a great season for us. He’s a big hole. We’re going to have to find ways — everyone’s going to find ways to help fill that one.”
An overtime loss at home to Anaheim the next night put Carolina’s winless streak at three and in need of a pick-me-up.
Enter Mr. Game 7.
In front of a sellout crowd last Sunday, Williams took the ice for his first shift at 2:35 of the opening period to thunderous applause — some foreshadowing of what was to come.
Williams tied for the team lead in shots with three despite playing just 13:06, and in the eighth round of a marathon shootout with the Islanders, Brind’Amour finally relented and sent No. 14 over the boards.
Williams — as fairy tales go — buried his attempt, and goalie James Reimer’s stop on New York captain Anders Lee guaranteed the second point.
“Only Willy can make that up,” Brind’Amour said after the win.
Carolina was set to play Winnipeg at home Tuesday night, its final game before nine days off for the All-Star break and the team’s bye week, capping a wild couple of weeks filled with tough losses, a significant loss and the beyond-words return of Williams.
Despite the upheaval, the Hurricanes have had to try and manage all the emotions while keeping their focus on gaining points in the packed-like-sardines Eastern Conference playoff race.
“You can’t go too high or too low,” center Sebastian Aho said. “It’s a good thing we have 20 guys who stick together. Whether it’s bad or good, we move on together. … Obviously, we lost a great player, Dougie, in Columbus. But it’s not an excuse or a reason why we wouldn’t win without him since it’s a team effort, and we like to think other guys just have to step up and we have to fill that hole as a group.”
Aho said Williams “looked good to go from Day 1” of practice, and defenseman Brett Pesce added that it was easy to accept the veteran back into the fold.
“I think just accepting him like he never left — that’s how I kind of view it,” Pesce said.
The wide range of feelings over the past two weeks means the long break couldn’t come at a better time.
“The good, for me, is the mental break,” Brind’Amour said. “That’s what the guys need right now.”