"A back-to-back game, I think we played double or triple overtime the night before," Williams was saying Monday afternoon, and he was right. Game 6 had been a double-overtime Leafs victory that had ended less than 24 hours earlier.
"Jeez, you're 19, 20 years old. You're just going out and playing. You're not thinking about anything except winning."
Actually, Williams was 21. He's 32 now, and to see him sitting in the visiting locker room at Madison Square Garden, hours before Game 3 of the Stanley Cup Finals, was to see a man who resembled Tom Hanks in Cast Away after four years on the island: scraggly hair, bushy black beard, willing to do whatever is necessary. He assisted on Jeff Carter's goal in the first period's final half-second Monday, starting the Los Angeles Kings on a 3-0 win and a three-games-to-none series lead on the Rangers - the Kings just one victory away from their second championship in three years and the third Cup of Williams' 14-year career. All he has done in this postseason is pile up 24 points in 24 games, scoring the overtime winner in Game 1 of the Finals, adding three assists in Game 2, reminding the Flyers once more what they had and what they let get away.
"It's funny," said Jeremy Roenick, one of Williams' teammates with the Flyers. "I was just talking to Mike Keenan, and there are very few people that I would say were Mike Keenan-type players, who could play for Mike Keenan and why. I told him, 'You would have loved Justin Williams on your team,' because he's a guy with incredible tenacity and grit and determination that you put in with intelligence. ...
"In big situations, he wants to be the guy with the puck. Some guys don't want the puck. They don't want the responsibility. He does."
It's become the running gag of this NHL postseason, all these ex-Flyers contributing to clubs that have advanced further than their old team did: Dan Carcillo with the Rangers, Danny Briere with the Montreal Canadiens, Patrick Sharp with the Chicago Blackhawks, and Mike Richards and Jeff Carter with the Kings. But Williams may be the biggest what-if of them all, because he's been so good for so long in the games that matter most. He's played in seven Game 7s, and in them, he has seven goals, seven assists, and seven victories.
His first was his only one with the Flyers. They had selected him in the first round of the 2000 draft, and he debuted with them four days after turning 19, and after 31/2 seasons of flashing his potential without sustaining it, they traded him to the Carolina Hurricanes in January 2004 for defenseman Danny Markov.
"I'm a firm believer things happen for a reason," he said. "For sure, I am. Sometimes you need a trade to open up your eyes or get a better shot to get your career to the next level. That's certainly what it was. Opportunity knocks, and I had a chance to take it."
The regret over that trade is not that the Flyers got nothing more than Markov for Williams. They had to add depth to their defense (of course, when don't they?), and Markov was very good for them during their run to the 2004 Eastern Conference finals, and these trades, the kinds of which they've made for years and years, are always defensible in the moment.
No, the real regret is that after the Flyers lost to the Tampa Bay Lightning in 2004, Markov never played another game for them. They traded him to Nashville in August 2005, just before the NHL lockout ended, 10 months before Williams won his first Stanley Cup. It is what the Flyers do. It is what they have always done. They fill an immediate need for the sake of trying to win right away, and the hardest of their die-hard fans applaud them for it, and it seems the organization rarely has stopped to consider the cost of its impatience.
"The Flyers have done that with a couple of guys," Roenick said. "They did that with Patrick Sharp. They gave up on Patrick for whatever reason. You can always look back and say, 'You made a mistake,' but at the time, I guess it's, 'You do what you have to do.' "
So they did, and they freed a promising young player to flower into perhaps the NHL's greatest clutch performer.
"I'm pretty uncomfortable talking about stuff like that," Williams said Monday, and really, what does he have to say? He goes out and plays. He doesn't think about anything except winning. So much has changed for Justin Williams since he was with the Flyers. So much is exactly the same.