The return of Justin Williams to the Carolina Hurricanes will certainly not be a magic elixir that solves every problem the Canes have moving forward. But on his first night back, in front of a sellout crowd at home, the 38-year-old veteran once again rose to the occasion and showed why he still has something to offer.
The Hurricanes poked back above the playoff cut line again after a tough 2-1 shootout win on Sunday, with Williams providing the winning tally in round eight of the shootout. Is it possible for this to serve as a spark for a team that has struggled for the better part of a month now?
The Good - James Reimer continues his hot play at home
With Sunday’s win, James Reimer has put together a tremendous run of three consecutive performances — all at PNC Arena — in which he has made 102 save on 105 shots for a .971 save percentage. Reimer’s work on Sunday was sporadic at times, but in the third period he turned away a Mathew Barzal breakaway attempt later in the period off of a blocked shot at the other end. That crucial save, combined with a solid performance on an early third period Isles power play, and his tremendous performance in the shootout earned him the first star on the night in what was close to a “must win” for a reeling team badly in need of a division win.
Reimer fought off a number of shots that were either screened or deflected Sunday, which is a clear sign that he is really positioning himself well currently. His only blemish on the evening was on a puck that bounced out in front that he tried to cover. As he attempted to lunge for the cover, Jaccob Slavin nudged the puck away and onto the stick of Anders Lee for the equalizing goal in the second period.
Reimer recovered from the unfortunate goal, however, and ultimately stopped 26 shots on the night to help the Canes come away victorious. He has, at least temporarily, become the leading option for the Canes in net. While the rotation in net will certainly continue, Reimer has earned his opportunity to see about equal ice time to the incumbent Petr Mrazek. How this plays out down the stretch with Rod Brind’Amour is anyone’s guess.
The Bad - Canes not converting
The Hurricanes have put together a solid offensive season overall as a team. Ranked 13th in the NHL in goals, the Canes have been markedly improved on the power play, and even with the loss of Dougie Hamilton, appear to be generally more of a threat offensively now than in several years.
But the Canes also are carrying some guys who are in extended funks.
Brock McGinn is certainly an asset that derives much of his value from things other than scoring, but his missed backdoor attempt in the second period dashed an opportunity to extend the lead to 2-0, and just a few minutes later the Isles knotted the score at 1-1.
McGinn has 2 goals and 4 points over his last 26 games. His value comes with PK and energy line minutes, but that's rough.— Brett Finger (@brett_finger) January 19, 2020
Nino Niederreiter has also struggled, going goal-less in his last 10 contests and failing to put a shot on goal on Sunday. Ryan Dzingel has gone eight games without a goal, and added only one assist in that time. The depth scoring from the Hurricanes was absent again on Sunday, and that trend is something that has led the Canes to have tight games slip away from then in recent weeks. Friday against the Ducks, Sebastian Aho provided the only tally. Sunday, the only regulation goal belonged to Andrei Svechnikov.
Andrei Svechnikov breaks their stick, and breaks their hearts. His one-timer deflects off a stick and into the net. Hurricanes are up 1-0 on the Islanders thanks to Svechnikov's 19th of the season. pic.twitter.com/NBTTHNVNXC— Brett Finger (@brett_finger) January 19, 2020
To be sure, production from the top of the Canes lineup is something they must continue to get. But in order to stay around in the competitive playoff race, the middle and bottom of the lineup is going to have to chip in, especially with Hamilton’s talents missing from the blueline for a significant period of time.
The Great - Williams returns and thrills the home crowd in OT
While Justin Williams had the second-lowest ice time of any Hurricanes player on Sunday, his impact both on this night and the future of this season were, and are likely to be, much greater. As Williams gained his sea legs against the Isles, he generated three shots as he looks to help be a catalyst in sparking the offense of the bottom half of the lineup. The sellout crowd came into PNC Arena in anticipation of the return of Williams, and ultimately in the eighth round of the shootout, the clutch veteran didn’t disappoint.
Justin Williams. 8th round of the shootout. Of course.— Brett Finger (@brett_finger) January 20, 2020
Hurricanes beat the Islanders 2-1 in a marathon shootout, Williams scores the deciding goal in his first game of the season. A big home ice divisional win for the Canes. pic.twitter.com/cwtMQM91eb
Straight through the wickets of Thomas Greiss, Williams provided the winning marker in the shootout, and just like that the Canes were back in a playoff position. It will certainly take some time to get back into the rhythm and flow of an NHL season, but the mental freshness that Williams might bring to a group that has been grinding of late could prove to be just a valuable as anything the former Captain brings on the ice. Regardless, it is never a bad idea to add a player who has earned the moniker “Mr. Game 7” to your roster for the stretch run.
Moral of the Story
The Hurricanes got a much needed win on Sunday. They really need to finish strong before the All-Star Break on Thursday as they welcome in the Winnipeg Jets. Every point is precious, and with a massive 10-day gap between Tuesday’s game and their return on Friday January 31st, the Canes will hopefully have a chance to recharge while not falling too far down in the standings. Moving forward, they must get more out of their secondary forwards, and continue to get top notch work in net like Reimer has provided of late.