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Justin Williams thrilled to be back in Hurricanes lineup after 11 months

It's hard to blame Justin Williams for wondering how differently things might have turned out.

After all, the Carolina Hurricanes winger had a lot of time to think about various scenarios while rehabbing a pair of serious injuries over the past 11 months.

Williams returned to Carolina's lineup on Thursday night and said that the toughest part of his time on the sidelines was watching the team go through some struggles without him. Essentially, he hated having to watch.

"It's as much a strain physically as it is emotionally," Williams said Friday. "Not being able to help your team, knowing that when healthy you can and sitting by and watching them miss the playoffs by one game last year (was hard). I feel that potentially I could have had an impact on that.

"Obviously the start of this year too with our coach (Peter Laviolette) being relieved of his duties and bearing a little responsibility for that as well."

There was little he could have done to prevent either of the injuries.

Williams suffered torn ligaments in his left knee after taking a hit last December and required reconstructive surgery to repair them. After months of working out, he was back feeling fit and healthy when he tore the Achilles tendon in his right leg while doing a shuttle run just prior to training camp.

It's not the sort of injury a hockey player usually suffers. The original diagnosis was that Williams would be out four to six months but it ended up taking him less than three.

He didn't register a point during Carolina's 5-2 loss to Pittsburgh on Thursday night and admits that his return was a little nerve-wracking after so long away.

"I could feel myself coming up to the faceoff dots and my heart pounding in my chest," said Williams. "I'm just trying to tell myself to relax, 'You've played 400 or 500 games in this league. Just relax out there.'

"I was real excited. I'm glad the game's over, we got through it. Unfortunately we didn't win but hopefully I've got a long healthy road ahead of me now."

It would certainly be a big help to the Hurricanes.

Williams has twice scored 30 goals for the team and was a key member of Carolina's Stanley Cup victory in 2006. The franchise has had some bad breaks in the years since that championship and is facing the possibility of missing the playoffs for a third straight year.

The team's inconsistent play prompted GM Jim Rutherford to hire Paul Maurice to take over for Laviolette earlier this week. It was a move that sent a ripple through the dressing room.

"I think it was tough for a lot of guys because we had reached the pinnacle of our careers and we had reached our ultimate goals with him in charge," said Williams. "That part was probably the toughest. You're never going to forget guys you went to war with and won with.

"It's not like he's going to be kicked out to the side of the street. He's a great coach and he'll find another job somewhere else."

The main focus for Williams is regaining his form.

He's played less than 10 NHL games over the last calendar year and hasn't scored a goal since Nov. 23, 2007. There's bound to be some lag in performance as he readjusts.

"I expect a lot from myself so I don't expect it to take too long," said Williams. "At the same time, I know that when you take a year off you're not going to be great right away. I realize that but I don't really have to accept it.

"I hope to be back within a couple games to helping the team more than I did (Thursday) night."

One of the main reasons he was able to return so quickly is because his Achilles tendon is protected by the boot of his skate. The recovery involved mostly strength and balance training as well as getting a feel for the ice again.

Even while injured, he watched Carolina's games closely and thinks he knows why the team has failed to meet expectations. The Hurricanes have a record of 12-12-2 so far.

"Our inconsistency has plagued us the last couple years," said Williams. "Being great one night, being mediocre one night and being very poor another night.

"Just finding that happy medium between good and great. We're not going have to our best game every night, but we still should be in games. That hasn't really been the case."

At least now he can be part of the solution.

After almost a year of watching from the press box, he's looking forward to a future back on the ice.

"It's been a tough road but I'm putting it way behind me right now," said Williams. "I have to focus on the present. I have to focus on moving forward and maintaining my health, which I know I'll be able to do."


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