NEWARK, N.J. - In the last couple of days, more of the hockey world has come to appreciate the unsung ways of Justin Williams.
The Los Angeles Kings' 30-year-old forward has had respect amongst his peers since his rookie season with the Philadelphia Flyers in 2000-01. But the spotlight has shone brighter on the unheralded Williams after his backhand pass in the neutral zone set up talented linemate Anze Kopitar for the overtime winner on Wednesday.
"I just go about my business and do the things I do," Williams said, as his Kings prepared for Game 2 of the Stanley Cup final against the New Jersey Devils on Saturday (CBC, CBCSports.ca, 8 p.m. ET). "As long as I get appreciation from the guys in the room, that's all that matters."
How can a first-line right wing on a team that has skated through its improbable playoff run with 13 wins in 15 games be underappreciated or underrated? It's because he plays alongside two of the more high-profile Kings in Kopitar and captain Dustin Brown.
Los Angeles second-line left wing Dustin Penner likens Williams to Kopitar and Brown the same way one would with former NBA stars Scottie Pippen and Michael Jordan.
"If you're looking for me to pump my own tires, you're not going to get that from me," Williams said. "I'm appreciative of what I have and my role on this team."
One person who has admired Williams for years now is Devils head coach Peter DeBoer. As coach and general manager of the OHL's Plymouth Whalers, DeBoer drafted Williams in the sixth round in 1998, when Williams was playing junior C near his hometown of Cobourg, Ont., which is an hour east of Toronto.
Caught scouts' attention
Williams split his rookie OHL season with Plymouth and its tier II affiliate, but caught the attention of scouts the next year. The Flyers selected him 28th overall after a 51-goal, 113-point campaign in 91 combined regular season and playoff games on a team that also featured Stephen Weiss, but lost the 2000 OHL final to the Barrie Colts in seven games.
"Kid came in and didn't make our team the first year," DeBoer said. "We put him down on the tier II team. He just kept hanging around. You could tell he was a good hockey player, but he was about 150 pounds. Had a great heart. Good story.
"Next year, he came back to camp and played for one year for me, was a first-round pick, never saw him again. He stepped right into Philadelphia. Great story of perseverance. Got a lot of time for Justin."
And Williams has a lot of time for DeBoer. The coach kept after the player and turned him into a professional from top to bottom.
But Williams not only has persevered as a teenager, but he's persisted through some difficult times in the NHL. He endured a difficult situation in the first round of the 2006 playoffs when he caught Montreal Canadiens captain Saku Koivu in the eye with a high stick. Koivu was knocked out for the rest of the season and Williams, although he was not penalized on the play nor suspended, came under fire.
Then there has been his long list of injuries. He's endured a broken left hand, a broken right hand, two left knee surgeries, a hip ailment, torn Achilles heel tendon and a bad back. His medical record is not pretty.
"There have been a lot of things mentally that I've had to get over," Williams said. "I certainly never contemplated packing it in. But I certainly wondered if I would get to the level of 2006."
After spending the 2004-05 lockout in Sweden playing for Lulea HF alongside NHLers like Tomas Holmstrom and Niclas Wallin, he put up his best numbers with the Carolina Hurricanes in their 2005-06 Stanley Cup season.
But that was only one of three seasons he's played a full 82-game schedule. The latest was this past regular season, and now he has a chance to join current teammates Penner, Colin Fraser and Rob Scuderi as the seventh, eighth, ninth and 10th two-time Stanley Cup champions since the lockout. The others include: Mark Recchi (2006, 2011), Craig Adams (2006, 2009), Andrew Ladd (2006, 2010), Shawn Thornton (2007, 2011), Chris Kunitz (2007, 2009) and Tomas Kopecky (2008, 2010).
"Sometimes all you need is a fresh start," said Williams, who arrived in Los Angeles three years ago in a three-way deal with Carolina and Edmonton that sent Patrick O'Sullivan to the Hurricanes and Erik Cole to the Oilers. "So far it's been good."
It's up to Kovalchuk
DeBoer has no plans to try and get high-scoring forward Ilya Kovalchuk away from the matchup against the Kings defence tandem of Rob Scuderi and Drew Doughty in Game 2. Kovalchuk only had one shot on goal in the series opener.
"We played [against Dan] Girardi and [Ryan] McDonagh against the Rangers, same thing," DeBoer said. "If they're going to match those guys up in order to get him away, we're going to have to get away from a four-line game. If they're matching up against Kovalchuk, then they're not matching up against Parise or other guys. The matchup game isn't something that I'm interested in or worried about. For me, it isn't relevant.
"I think our identity is a four-line team. Kovy is a piece of that, but he's not the team. I don't think that's how we're built. I don't think that's why we've had success. We're capable of surviving on nights when he doesn't score or isn't at the top of his game, just like we're capable of surviving nights that Elias or Parise or other guys aren't. I think that's the strength of our team."
No repeat of Marty's blunder
Last time Los Angeles was in the Stanley Cup final in 1993, the Kings run at the championship was derailed when the Canadiens called for an illegal stick on Kings defenceman Marty McSorley in Game 2.
DeBoer was asked when was the last time he called for an illegal stick. It was back in the 2005 OHL playoffs, when DeBoer coached the Kitchener Rangers and his captain was current Kings centre Mike Richards. Anaheim Ducks sniper Corey Perry, who was playing for Dale Hunter's London Knights at the time, was the victim.
"We had all been together with the [Canadian] world junior team," DeBoer said. "I had found, probably a little unethically by coaching him [Perry], that his stick was illegal at Christmas.
"We played London in the playoffs. I had Richie call Corey for an illegal stick. We actually got it. Didn't score in the five-on-three. I think London scored shorthanded and we lost the series. It backfired."
The Knights not only beat Kitchener and later won the OHL championship, they also prevailed to win the Memorial Cup at home a few weeks later.
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