Red Wing goes from worst to first

JIM KERNAGHAN -- London Free Press

, Last Updated: 7:30 AM ET

There are times, Jason Williams admits, when his Detroit Red Wings' linemates gang up on him on the bench.

He was a bit shocked when ex-Knight Brendan Shanahan and Robert Lang first gave him a harangue.

Maybe in his last NHL season two years ago -- one of his worst years in hockey ever -- it would make sense.

But now that he's the Wings' leading scorer going into last night's game against the Edmonton Oilers, well . . .

Still, the Londoner appreciates it. He knows it's all about helping him and their line.

"They've been kind of hard on me if I make a mistake," says Williams.

"But they're not trying to be idiots or anything," Williams says. "They just have high expectations.

"It's a good way to learn. They want you to do well. I can learn so much from playing with those two."

Williams's teachers obviously have been getting through to their centre, who has 18 points after getting a goal and an assist in the Wings' 4-3 overtime loss to the Oilers last night.

He's generally making a solid contribution on a regular shift and power play.

The new NHL rules play right into his style, as well. He's fast, with a deft touch. Without towering defencemen getting away with the hickory lasso any more, he's a threat any time he crosses the opposing blueline.

Williams quickly points out that being aligned with players such as Shanahan and Lang hasn't hurt, either. But he's not with them because new Wings coach Mike Babcock liked him from when he coached Williams at Cincinnati.

"It was a fresh start," Williams said. "I knew I had to prove to him what I could do out there. That was my mindset. To put good positive things into his head so he puts me on the ice."

Things were not so rosy for the Londoner before last season's lockout. Sitting out with injuries was bad enough, but being a healthy scratch really hurt.

Williams now sees those down times as a motivator. It's just one of the reasons why he has been shining this year.

There are others. He's older (25) and more mature. He had an invaluable season playing in NHL conditions in Finland last year, in roles from power play to penalty killing. Being the go-to guy never hurts.

Babcock is nothing if not pragmatic. He was aware of what Williams had put into his game and saw the possibilities. Williams, Shanahan and Lang have been a line since training camp.

"I called Willy (Williams) over the summer and told him to get ready," Babcock said. "He got an opportunity and he's done something with it. The key for him is to continue to get that opportunity and not sit back and feel good about himself. He's got to keep his foot on the gas."

Nobody has to tell Williams. You never see the brake lights go on as Babcock urges him not only to play his game but make himself a physical presence, as well.

Williams's goal is to continue improving, to learn, to take whatever heat his linemates might give him. On a packed team under Scotty Bowman, then Dave Lewis, it was always a fight for ice time so now that he's got it, he intends to keep it.

He doesn't have to look hard in his rear-view mirror to see the alternative.

"The last NHL season was the toughest I've had to go through mentally," he said. "To sit out 20 games as a healthy scratch was one thing. I had some groin problems and didn't play to my potential and that was disappointing."

Williams knew he could play in the NHL. The frustrating part was not getting much of a chance.

"Maybe it made me stronger," he said upon reflection.

When you've accomplished as much in a month as you did in any of four previous seasons, maybe it has.

Having Brendan Shanahan in your face is a pretty compelling motivator, too.


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