WASHINGTON — The Tampa Bay Lightning, the best team in hockey during the regular season, were swept, a fate that also befell the Pittsburgh Penguins. The San Jose Sharks rallied from a three-goal deficit with a comeback sparked by a controversial power play en route to Tuesday’s double overtime Game 7 victory over the Vegas Golden Knights.
A frantic first-round of the Stanley Cup playoffs, however, came to a conventional end on Wednesday: Justin Williams was clutch as usual. Williams, aka “Mr. Game 7,” set up Brock McGinn’s game-winning goal as the Carolina Hurricanes advanced with a 4-3 double-overtime Game 7 victory over the defending Stanley Cup champion Washington Capitals.
“This doesn’t add to anything,” Williams said when asked about his latest Game 7 exploits. “This is not my story. This the Hurricanes’ story. I’m proud of every single one of our guys and we are not done.”.
Williams’ assist gave him 15 points in Game 7s and he has an 8-1 record in those decisive games.
The New York Islanders — who swept the Penguins — are next for the Hurricanes, a team that drew attention earlier this season for their wins. Well, more precisely, what they did after their wins: Postgame celebrations on home ice that drew the wrath of “Hockey Night in Canada” analyst Don Cherry. Cherry called the Hurricanes a “bunch of jerks” and other old-school hockey folks shared similar sentiments.
Four playoff wins later, those “jerks” are where the President’s Trophy-winning Lightning and the last season’s finalists (Washington and Vegas) are not.
“We became relevant again this year,” Williams said. “This is just another step. It’s wide-open for us.”.
First-year Hurricanes coach Rod Brind’Amour heaped plenty of credit upon Williams, and not just for the assist in Game 7. The two were teammates when the Hurricanes won their lone title in 2006. Williams won two more Cups with the Los Angeles Kings and then played two seasons with the Capitals — where he suffered his only Game 7 loss in 2017 — before he returned to Carolina.
“He gives me a lot of confidence to do this job,” said Brind’Amour, who tapped Williams as captain before the season. “As a first-time coach, there’s always doubt. You’re always going to wonder if you are doing the right thing. I have him there as a friend who is able to tell me when I’m screwing up. He screws up, too, so I can give it back.
“The guys we have in here, they all look up to him.”.
The Hurricanes didn’t take the most direct path in the series or in Game 7, falling behind 2-0 to the Capitals in both respects.
“We didn’t’ give up,” Williams said. “We were down 2-0 and we told ourselves we weren’t going to let it snowball like we did (in Game 5). We regrouped and stayed with it.”.
The Hurricanes trailed by two goals early and lost Game 5 6-0 as the Capitals took a 3-2 series lead on Saturday.
This time, the Hurricanes extricated themselves from two, two-goal deficits. The latter came when Jordan Staal tied the game three minutes into the third period on a seemingly manageable shot that buzzed past Holtby and into the net to make it a 3-3 game.
“It was obviously there to take,” Holtby said of the game. “We just weren’t good enough.”.
The red-clad crowd at Capital One Arena fell silent in the minutes after Staal’s equalizer, minus when T.J. Oshie was flashed on the screens. His right arm in a sling after he broke his right collarbone earlier in the series, the “Oshie” chants distracted the Capitals faithful from the potential of another Game 7 letdown.
That came on McGinn’s goal and after the Caps failed to convert on a power play earlier in the second overtime.
“I didn’t know if (Williams’ attempt on net) was going to have enough steam to the cross the line, so I wasn’t going to take that chance,” McGinn said.
The Capitals fell to 3-8 record in Game 7s since the Alexander Ovechkin-Nicklas Backstrom tandem made their playoff debut in 2008. Ovechkin had one assist as Backstrom went scoreless in Game 7; each were minus-2.
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The Capitals were powered early in Game 7 by a couple players that had largely been non-factors in the series: Andre Burakovsky and Evgeny Kuznetsov.
Burakovsky scored his first career playoff goal two minutes into regulation as he beat Hurricanes goalie Petr Mrazek after a turnover. The Caps made it a 2-0 lead as Tom Wilson scored this third goal of the series 6:23 into the first period.
Sebastian Aho scored a shorthanded goal midway through the second period off a rebound allowed by Holtby. After the Caps made it a two-goal game again when Kuznetsov — the Capitals leading scorer in last year’s playoffs — scored his first goal of the series, Teuvo Teravainen countered with a tally late in the second to cut it to a 3-2 Capitals lead after two periods.
Follow USA TODAY Sports’ A.J. Perez on Twitter @byajperez.