For the Hurricanes’ Justin Williams, disappointment now and uncertainty ahead

Canes’ Justin Williams: ‘I didn’t think it would be done quite like this’

The Canes' Justin Williams reflects on the season after the Boston Bruins eliminated the Carolina Hurricanes in game four of the Eastern Conference finals at PNC Arena in Raleigh, N.C. Thursday, May 16, 2019.
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The Canes' Justin Williams reflects on the season after the Boston Bruins eliminated the Carolina Hurricanes in game four of the Eastern Conference finals at PNC Arena in Raleigh, N.C. Thursday, May 16, 2019.

Only Justin Williams knows whether this was the final game of his career or not, but his teary embrace with his children and his reluctance to remove his gear certainly indicated it could be the end for the Carolina Hurricanes’ 37-year-old captain.

A free agent this summer, Williams’ future has yet to be determined, but his leadership in getting the Hurricanes not only into the playoffs but into the Eastern Conference finals – even if his play tailed off at the end – was essential. What that means for his future is unclear at this point.

Williams did not specifically address his future, but the pain of the loss was all too apparent.

“The tank’s been low for a long time,” Williams said. “We’ve been running on adrenaline and sheer will. It’s always tough to swallow when a season ends abruptly like that. You’re cut real quick. And you go home. I told my kids I was planning on going to Boston tomorrow but I’ll be home after school. Life goes on.”

Hurricanes coach Rod Brind’Amour, asked about Williams, almost stammered through his answer, unsure of what to say.

“I don’t know. I don’t know,” Brind’Amour said. “I mean, you know, when you’ve been through the wars that he has, he knows – I don’t know what his plans are, but the likelihood of getting back to this point is rare, is tough. It’s almost more disappointment for older guys than younger guys.”

There is no doubt, however, the bond between the two former linemates and 2006 Stanley Cup champions was the backbone of the team’s success this season, from the first day of training camp until Thursday. Their shared history and friendship allowed them to work in tandem to raise standards and set expectations that meant getting even to this point still left them short of their goals.

“I was a new captain, Roddy’s a new coach,” Williams said. “We’re obviously great friends. We rolled this thing the way it needed to go. Obviously a special bond with Roddy. I know I could have been a lot better in this series, but in the grand scheme of things, I’m proud of what we did.”

Williams finished the playoffs with four goals and three assists in 15 games – and took some uncharacteristic penalties against the Bruins – after a regular-season where he cracked the 20-goal mark for the seventh time in his career with 23 goals and 53 points.

“Willy is probably at that point where he just needs to reflect a little,” Brind’Amour said. “Listen, you want to see a guy give everything he had this year? Take a look. I was shocked he had the year he had. Pretty amazing to me.”

TURNING POINT The Bruins might have won the series regardless, but the seeds of the sweep were sown on special teams, where the Hurricanes’ abysmal power play collided with its nearly unstoppable counterpart on the other side of the ice. The Bruins had a plus-6 advantage on special teams in four games, going 7-for-15 while the Hurricanes went 1-for-14.

“In the end our special teams kind of killed us,” Hurricanes center Jordan Staal said. “I’m on both of them, so I have to be better and a lot of guys have to be better in that regard.”

For the playoffs, the Hurricanes were 5-for-52, as their regular-season inconsistency with the man advantage bottomed out in the postseason.

“Before this series, I said special teams was going to win it and obviously we lost that battle,” Hurricanes defenseman Jaccob Slavin said. “We’ve got to make sure we’re working on that next year.”

HOME AGAIN At the end of another playoff sellout, the surge in fan interest in the postseason was particularly gratifying for Williams and Brind’Amour, both of whom had seen it before, Williams in 2006, Brind’Amour in 2001 and 2002 and 2006 and 2009. Restoring that atmosphere at PNC Arena was part of their collective goal for the season, and while it ended on such grim circumstances, the ovation at the end was appreciated.

“I hate that we went out like that, on that game,” Brind’Amour said. “That was a dud game for them to come and watch. I apologize for that. But tremendous support for our team. It means a lot to me, but it means a lot to our players and this organization to see the people, not just coming back but the way they do and the way they get behind our group. It’s a real community feel. It’s something special.”

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Sports columnist Luke DeCock has covered the Summer Olympics, the Final Four, the Super Bowl and the Carolina Hurricanes’ Stanley Cup. He joined The News & Observer in 2000 to cover the Hurricanes and the NHL before becoming a columnist in 2008. A native of Evanston, Ill., he graduated from the University of Pennsylvania and has won multiple national and state awards for his columns and feature writing while twice being named North Carolina Sportswriter of the Year.