Luke DeCock

After sleepless night, Justin Williams awakened when Hurricanes needed him

Sunday’s pregame brunch was scheduled for the Carolina Hurricanes at 10 am and Justin Williams awoke from uneasy dreams long before that, restless thoughts leading to a restless night after a game – and a start to the season – that had gone unexpectedly sour.

Williams figured he got about five hours of sleep at most after Saturday’s no-show loss to the Columbus Blue Jackets, the lowest point of his captaincy so far, the team’s sudden struggles exacerbated by his own.

“Five hours, tops,” Williams said. “Less than usual. Those games stick with you, because you care, right? You always have a tough time sleeping after a loss. You replay things in your mind: What could I have done better? Why didn’t I have the legs? You have the questions.”

Through 19 games, Williams had scored just one goal, and the muttering among fans that it might be time for Rod Brind’Amour to cut back his role had gone beyond a low murmur and become plainly audible. He stood up after the game Saturday, called it a “dud,” made no excuses, and then went home to toss and turn about it.

What do you do, at 37, when the shots aren’t going in? What do you do, as captain, when the collective effort slips below acceptable levels?

These are the questions Williams asked himself as Saturday turned into Sunday, as sleep slipped away with another game looming.

“No one’s going to feel sorry for you,” Williams said. “Once you get that through your head, like the woe-is-me crap – get it out of your head. No one’s going to get you out of a funk but you. I’m not out of a funk yet. But hopefully this can springboard me to better play. Because we’re certainly capable of it.”

It took Williams – and Jordan Staal, whose production has slowed as well – all of 22 seconds to make a statement and set a new tone. They scored on their first shift, Staal setting up Williams for his first goal in more than a month. Micheal Ferland followed up eight seconds later off a pass from Teuvo Teravainen.

That was all the offense the Hurricanes would need, with Curtis McElhinney stopping 33 of 34 shots on the rare night the Hurricanes were outgunned in that category (the second time this season, both wins). This was far from pretty, typically ragged for a game between two teams that both played the night before, and the Hurricanes were far from perfect. But the early offense, McElhinney’s goaltending and some late lockdown defense, were enough to get the 2-1 win over the New Jersey Devils.

All of which left Williams generally unhappy with the performance, thrilled with the result and relieved that he was able to deliver when his team needed him most.

“It was nice,” Williams said. “My legs felt good tonight, for some reason on a back-to-back for the first time this year. I don’t know. The body’s a weird thing.”

Through a quarter of the season, his captaincy hasn’t exactly gone as planned. He now has the two goals (and 11 assists) through 20 games and his partnership with Staal has been extremely prolific in terms of chances generated but not in terms of goals scored.

“We were talking about it before this game,” Staal said. “To be honest, we just needed to relax a little more. Both of us have been fighting it for a while. The effort’s always been there, we just haven’t gotten the extra bounces and gotten it in the net. Just to be on the ice for a goal for would have been nice. It was nice and early, got us feeling good.”

And the Hurricanes, after their hot start, have settled into a mishmash of mediocrity at 9-8-3, not out of anything yet to be sure but unable to put together any kind of a winning streak, which was Williams’ frequent lament a year ago.

“Yeah, a lot more downs than I anticipated,” Williams said. “Is this game 20? I expected us to be higher in the division, that’s for sure. But you just have to find that little streak, that little feeling-good streak where you’re confident in yourself. Curtis gave us a great start tonight, made the saves when he had to.”

Anything can be a starting point. At the least, it’s a springboard to a decent night’s sleep.

Sports columnist Luke DeCock: 919-829-8947, ldecock@newsobserver.com, @LukeDeCock
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