RALEIGH — Right from the start, Justin Williams was more nervous than he expected to be in his return to the NHL.
It started with butterflies and carried through the game, right down to the eighth round of the shootout when coach Rod Brind’Amour — his old teammate — tapped his shoulder and sent him over the boards.
“I don’t think you can calm yourself down at that point,” Williams said. “You do your best, just take a deep breath and say, ‘Here we go.’”
The crowd erupted as Williams hit the ice, and the former captain — known for his clutch play throughout his career — didn’t disappoint.
Williams fired the puck through Islanders goalie Thomas Greiss’ legs, and then James Reimer stopped New York captain Anders Lee to give Carolina two points in a 2-1 shootout win in front of a sellout crowd of 18,680 Sunday at PNC Arena.
Williams, playing on the fourth line with Lucas Wallmark and Brock McGinn, looked like the player who had 23 goals and 53 points for the Hurricanes last season, tying for the team lead with three shots on goal in just 13:06 of ice time.
“He certainly didn’t look out of place,” Brind’Amour said of Williams. “Right for the start, his first shift was a good shift. So that was encouraging. I expected him to be a little more rusty, to be honest with you, just the pace. Because that was a fast game, too. But he fit right in.”
And the game fit right in with the Metropolitan’s label as the NHL’s deepest division.
It was the Hurricanes, riding the wave of emotion from Williams’ return, that scored first.
Carolina was swarming early in the first period, and captain Jordan Staal’s big hit on the Islanders’ Jordan Eberle kept the puck in the zone. Defenseman Brett Pesce worked the puck to Andrei Svechnikov at the right circle, and his slap shot hit defenseman Noah Dobson’s stick and fooled Greiss for a 1-0 lead 5:45 into the game.
“We can’t have any choices. We have to win right now,” said Svechnikov, whose goal was his 19th of the season.
But the disciplined Islanders gained their footing and tilted the ice the other way, creating several chances against Reimer (26 saves) but struggling to get one in the net.
New York finally got on the board in the final minute of the second period. After Carolina killed off a penalty, the Islanders kept the pressure on, and Lee collected a loose puck in front to tie the game 1-1 with just 56 seconds left in the middle frame.
It set up a third period that was reminiscent of a game you might see in May or June.
“It was a playoff game out there, that’s what it felt like,” Williams said. “Teams aren’t giving an inch and there are chances either way and it could’ve gone either way, obviously.”
It was that way until the final few minutes when both teams had Grade-A chances, only to see Reimer and Greiss (31 saves) come up with save after save.
“All of a sudden it opened up right at the end, and there was a lot of Grade-A looks for both groups,” Brind’Amour said. “Reims stood his ground.”
The first 2½ of overtime saw both teams get chances, but neither could score. The Islanders then tried to lull the Hurricanes into making a mistake in the second half of the extra session, but instead the two teams went to the shootout.
Svechnikov opened it with a goal, but Mathew Barzal tied it on the Islanders’ second attempt. Both Teuvo Teravainen and Anthony Beauvillier then scored to send the shootout to extra rounds.
Eight straight were unable to score until Williams hit the ice.
“In hindsight now, I wish I would’ve done it earlier just because I kind of forgot that ovation was going to come,” Brind’Amour said of the crowd’s roar when he sent Williams out to shoot. “That was nice. … A special moment.”
Williams scored but Reimer, in his first shootout since coming to Carolina, still had to stop Lee.
“You know what you need to do to be successful,” Reimer said. “You can’t let any of the emotions or the moment get to you.”
On a night full of emotions, the Hurricanes found a way to channel theirs to two points and a storybook ending in Williams’ first game back.
“Only Willy can make that up,” Brind’Amour said.
Notes: Pesce got his 100th career point with an assist on Svechnikov’s first period goal. … Jake Gardiner played his 600th career game. … The sellout was Carolina’s eighth in 25 home games this season. … Williams’ 13:06 was his lowest ice time since Jan. 14, 2018, when he received 17 penalty minutes after fighting Calgary captain Marc Giordano after the defenseman’s hit on Sebastian Aho led to a match penalty. Williams played only 9:04 that game.