It has taken a little while. Longer, perhaps, than Justin Williams expected when he rejoined the Carolina Hurricanes after an eight-year absence with the intention of helping push them to the next level.
After almost three months and almost half the season, he sees signs of things changing for the better. Wednesday night was one of those signs.
This was a game the Hurricanes had to have, hosting the flu-ridden Montreal Canadiens off the four-day Christmas break, which meant the Canadiens flew south Wednesday afternoon. And it was one they did have, thanks to Sebastian Aho’s third-period power-play goal and Aho’s empty-netter for a 3-1 win.
The Hurricanes enjoyed long periods of dominance but nearly threw it away with some breakdowns in the first period and a lackluster second before locking down the win in the third.
“I didn’t think we played great tonight, but we won,” Williams said. “That’s a big step. That’s big. That means we’re doing little things right that are getting us a win. I think we’re slowly learning that those things matter.”
Now only three points behind the New York Rangers for the final playoff spot in the Eastern Conference, the Hurricanes have done their best over the past two weeks and change to atone for a dismal start to the month, winning six of seven to revive their postseason chances. Wednesday was another step in that direction, still with Cam Ward in net.
The standings aside, they’ll get a better sense of where they sit 10 days from now, after a difficult five-game stretch that includes a home game against the Penguins on Friday, a trip to St. Louis on Saturday, hosting Washington on Tuesday and a two-game road trip to Pittsburgh and Boston – all playoff teams or, in the case of Pittsburgh, just outside of the playoff picture, like the Hurricanes.
That’ll mark the halfway point of the season, a time to reflect and assess with a three-day break before another difficult stretch, at Tampa Bay before a home-and-home with the Capitals.
All of which is a familiar position for the Hurricanes, and not one they thought they would be in this season. Williams was just one of several offseason acquisitions that were supposed to offer the kind of talent boost that would allow the Hurricanes to be on the inside looking out at this time of year and not the other way around again.
That wasn’t the way it worked out. Scott Darling has struggled to the point where Ward has basically resumed his position as the No. 1 goalie and Williams, signed for his leadership and experience in addition to his scoring, was ignored when the Hurricanes decided to go with a cockamamie co-captaincy. In any event, the upgrades did not lead to an upgrade in the standings, or at least not yet.
But Williams, who has won Stanley Cups here and elsewhere, becoming famous for his Game 7 heroics in the process, has finely tuned antennae for the kind of environment and mentality that leads to winning in the NHL. He’s starting to see what he wanted to see from the beginning. And the Hurricanes are starting to see the kind of results they expected from the beginning.
“We’re certainly not where we want to be yet,” Williams said. “We’re in the dreaded ninth place. But I see a little something here, and hopefully it develops the way I want it to. It’s not here yet.”
Is this little run a sign of things to come? The schedule conveniently provides the kind of gantlet that will put the Hurricanes’ recent success, and what Williams sees leading to it behind the scenes, to the test.
It hasn’t been the ideal first half Williams or the Hurricanes hoped they would have. But there’s still five games for the Hurricanes to further polish things before the calendar flips.
“Ups and downs, certainly,” Williams said. “But we’re trending upward right now, and that’s nice.”
Sports columnist Luke DeCock: 919-829-8947, @LukeDeCock