WASHINGTON -- Not long after forward Tom Wilson became an unlikely hero for the Washington Capitals -- helping them avert early playoff disaster and win the opening game of their first-round series against the Toronto Maple Leafs 3-2 with an overtime goal on Thursday -- veteran winger Justin Williams walked past him in the hallway outside the locker room at the Verizon Center.
"It feels good, doesn't it?" Williams said.
He would know. Williams, who had two goals of his own in the game to help the Caps erase an early 2-0 deficit and get to extra time, has made a habit of scoring clutch goals in the playoffs. The 35-year-old -- who won three Stanley Cups with the Carolina Hurricanes (2006) and Los Angeles Kings (2012 and 2014) -- is known as "Mr. Game 7" for his contest-deciding heroics.
Williams owns the record for most points in Game 7s, with 14. In seven Game 7s, he has scored seven goals -- and his teams have won them all.
So for Wilson, whose overtime swipe was his first goal in 29 postseason games and just his third career playoff point, getting love for a game winner from the king of clutch was a little like drawing praise for gift-giving prowess from Santa.
And while Wilson was the hero in Game 1, this series -- and perhaps the Capitals' entire playoff fortunes -- would be different were it not for Williams, whom Washington acquired before last season in hopes that his playoff wizardry could help a team known for its postseason failures.
"Without him, we don't win the hockey game," Wilson said. It certainly wasn't the first time one of Williams' teammates had uttered those sentiments.
In addition to scoring, Williams tried to encourage and pump up his teammates throughout the game while the sellout crowd at Verizon Center became restless because of Washington's sloppy play and the two-goal deficit that seemed to be an early harbinger of yet more playoff missteps.
"He has a pretty calming effect on our group," said Capitals coach Barry Trotz of Williams. "Even on the bench, he always says the right things. 'Let's just start playing here. We're standing around waiting for something to happen.' I think he has a real good effect on the guys next to him."
Williams' regular-season stats -- 682 points in 1,080 career games -- are more than respectable, but hardly the stuff of legend. He's simply a leader who thrives in big moments.
"Willy is just a smart, smart player who knows when to elevate his game," said former center Jarret Stoll, who won two Cups alongside Williams in Los Angeles. "I don't think it comes easy to him, but he's just comfortable doing it. He understands the game so well that he knows when to up his game and do what he does in the playoffs."
Brian Boyle played against Williams and the Kings in the 2014 finals when the veteran center was with the New York Rangers. Boyle, 32, is now the voice of experience on a very youthful Leafs squad. When asked which players have that rare ability to have an impact when the stakes are the highest, Boyle began with Pittsburgh Penguins captain Sidney Crosby and Chicago Blackhawks captain Jonathan Toews.
"And then it's just guys who made a career of kind of playing a little above their pay grade," Boyle said. "You expect them to kind of tail off, but they don't. [The Capitals] have got guys like that on their team. Williams, that guy always comes up big. He prepares, and then he does it."
Williams had been in more postseason games (127) than any other player in Game 1. And when his team fell behind by two goals less than 10 minutes in, Williams single-handedly willed the Capitals back in it.
"You can't train for that," Stoll said. "You can't prepare for that. It's just his makeup. It's his makeup that he realizes it's a special time, and he's a special player so he succeeds in those times."
Stoll recalled a passionate speech that Williams gave before Game 6 of the Stanley Cup finals against the New Jersey Devils in 2012. It galvanized the Kings en route to their first Cup win. Two years later, Williams scored an overtime winner in Game 1 of the finals against the New York Rangers to help propel the Kings to a second Cup. Stoll admitted that L.A. might not have deserved to win that game against the Rangers. But Williams ensured that was a moot point.
Did the Capitals deserve to win Game 1 against Toronto? It's debatable. But it's likewise a non-issue now, thanks to Williams' -- and Wilson's -- wizardry.
"It's not just me," Williams insisted after the game. "Our whole team said, 'Enough is enough.'"
Former Kings general manager Dean Lombardi considers Williams, whom he acquired in March 2009 from Carolina, "one of the top three moves [then-assistant general manager Ron Hextall] and I made to build the culture of the team that won two Cups."
"He's a winner, one of a kind," said Lombardi of Williams via text after Washington's win on Thursday night. "There are not many like him."
For his part, the typically self-effacing Williams insisted that he was simply in the right place at the right time in Game 1. "Someone else will do it next game. That's the way it goes," he said.
That next game is Saturday at 7 p.m. ET in Washington. It's way too early to start planning any kind of celebration in the nation's capital -- but clearly not too early for Mr. Game 7 to prove that he still has his sorcerer's touch. Even in Game 1.