Justin Williams, one of the top clutch players in NHL history, retires after 19 seasons

The three-time Stanley Cup champion had two stints with the Carolina Hurricanes

It makes perfect sense that Justin Williams would retire from the NHL on Oct. 8.

There was no way he was hanging up his skates on the 7th.

The three-time Stanley Cup winner known as “Mr. Game 7” — who helped the Carolina Hurricanes to their only title in 2006 and won a Conn Smythe Trophy as playoff MVP with the Los Angeles Kings in 2004 — announced his retirement Thursday after 19 NHL seasons.

“Since I first broke into the league a day after my 19th birthday back in 2000, this game has brought me so much that I will never be able to repay it” Williams said in a release by the Hurricanes. “The countless experiences, relationships, lessons and hardships will remain with me forever as I move on to the next stage of my life. I’ve never once taken for granted the privilege it is to be able to play a game for a living, and that is probably why I was able to play it professionally for as long as I have.”

Williams, who turned 39 on Sunday, played for four franchises in his career and had two stints in Carolina. The 28th overall pick by the Philadelphia Flyers in 2000, he was traded to the Hurricanes for defenseman Danny Markov in January 2004 and became a key player on Carolina’s post-lockout teams.

He tied for second in team scoring in the 2005-06 season and had 18 points in 25 postseason games, including the empty-net goal in Game 7 of the Stanley Cup Final against the Edmonton Oilers that sealed Carolina’s victory.

It also set the foundation for his reputation as one of hockey’s top clutch players.

Williams had seven goals and eight assists in nine career Game 7s, starting with a three-point effort in the Flyers’ first-round win over the Maple Leafs in 2003 and ending with his assist on Brock McGinn’s series-winning double-overtime goal in Carolina’s upset of the defending Stanley Cup champion Washington Capitals in 2019.

In between, all Williams did was win.

His biggest statistical seasons came in his first two full seasons in Raleigh when he combined for 64 goals and 143 points while not missing a game. But injuries caught up to Williams the next two seasons and led to his trade to the Kings.

In Los Angeles, he solidified his spot as a big-game player, winning two more Stanley Cups and his Conn Smythe. More importantly, he became known as one of the game’s top leaders in the locker room.

That success and reputation led Washington to sign Williams with the hopes that his influence would push the Capitals past the rival Pittsburgh Penguins and to their first Stanley Cup. While the Caps fell short during Williams’ stint in D.C., several Capitals players pointed to his influence when Washington finally won the Cup the following year.

Williams, meanwhile, was back in Raleigh, hoping to return Carolina to the glory it had lost in the eight-plus years since he had left.

Year 1 was a bust. Coach Bill Peters didn’t name Williams his captain as expected — instead going with a bizarre two-captain rotation of Jordan Staal and Justin Faulk — and Carolina failed to make the playoffs.

But new ownership and a new coach — former linemate Rod Brind’Amour — corrected that error for the 2018-19 season, and Williams rightfully received the “C” that his former center wore when Carolina won its title in 2006.

Williams again rose to the occasion, leading the Hurricanes back to the postseason for the first time in a decade. In the opening round of the playoffs against his old team, the Capitals, he had just one assist in the first five games of the series.

But in Game 6, he scored with just over eight minutes left in the third period to give Carolina a two-goal lead. Then in Game 7, having played 29:40, he won a battle in the corner and centered a pass that McGinn redirected past Capitals goalie Braden Holtby in double overtime to help the Hurricanes advance, ending his former team’s reign as champion.

Carolina’s run ended with an Eastern Conference Final sweep against the Bruins, and then Williams’ career ended similarly with a five-game loss to Boston this season in the Toronto bubble.

In all, Williams scored 320 goals and had 797 points in 1,264 regular season games, adding another 41 goals and 102 points in 162 postseason games. He wore No. 11 in his first run in Carolina, and No. 14 in his second.

But the numbers — in the boxscore or on the back of his sweater — never told the story of Justin Williams.

Well, except one — seven.