Williams and Hubacek Steal Opening Night Spotlight From Sedin Twins

By Bill Meltzer
On the night when Daniel and Henrik Sedin made their long-anticipated NHL debut, two less-heralded Philadelphia Flyers rookies, Justin Williams (the Flyers 2000 first round pick) and Petr Hubacek (a 1998 9th rounder) grabbed the spotlight. Both Philadelphia players scored a goal in their first NHL game and Williams, the game’s first star, also added two powerplay assists.

Williams, playing on the first line with Keith Primeau and John LeClair, had the type of night that every young player grows up dreaming about. Everything he touched turned to gold.

At the 3:14 mark of the first period, Williams found a free lane to the net and scored the first goal of the game.

Said Williams, “We had a little separation out there and Johnny just chipped the puck in the middle. I got a shot off but it was blocked. It kicked around a little bit and found my stick. I just kind of whacked it in.”

In the second period, Williams was credited with secondary assists on powerplay goals by LeClair and Eric Desjardins. While Williams was not instrumental in either goal he assisted on (particularly not the Desjardins goal, which was almost entirely the result of a brilliant set-up feed by Mark Recchi), the rookie was in the thick of the action all night long. Going into the third period, there was legitimate reason to wonder if Williams had a shot at matching the NHL record-setting 5 point debut that rookie Al Hill had for the Flyers in 1976. That bit of history was not to be, but no one was complaining, least of all the unassuming Williams.

“I know it won’t be a three point game for me every night. It might be the only one I ever get,” Williams said with a laugh. “I still have lot to prove in this league.”

It is important for Williams to make an immediate impression on the team. The Flyers can send him back to his junior team, Plymouth, without penalty until he has dressed in ten games. If they send him back after that, he would lose one year of NHL waiver draft eligibility.

“It’s kind of like [a season within itself]; knowing I can be sent back” said Williams of his trial period with the Flyers, “but I just can’t worry about it. I
just try to block it out of my mind.”

Meanwhile, Petr Hubacek made a modest bit of history of his own. He became the lowest draft pick in team history (243rd overall in ’98) to dress for a game with the NHL team, displayed the puck handling wizardry, grit along the boards and soft hands that had the Flyers coaches raving about him all preseason long.

With the Flyers trailing 2-1 early in the second period, Hubacek shrugged off a defender near the left post and got wide open between the circles to take a feed from Rick Tocchet, stationed behind the net. Hubacek one-timed the puck past Vancouver goalie Felix Potvin to knot the game at 2-2.

“He has all the tools to score goals in this league,” said head coach Craig Ramsay. “I told him the other day that he has to be thinking about scoring goals.”

One area of Hubacek’s game that is of concern to the Flyers coach is faceoffs. The big Czech center had a poor preseason in that department. Hubacek held his own on the draw tonight- winning 3 of 7 draws. However, he was taken off the ice for several key defensive zone draws with the Flyers protecting a one goal lead in the third period. Keith Primeau, the Flyers top faceoff man, took the draws instead.

Justin Williams and Petr Hubacek made a strong statement tonight on behalf of the Flyers sometimes maligned farm system. It is never well-advised to get too excited over one game. By this time next month, Williams might be skating for Plymouth and Hubacek could be a Philadelphia Phantom. But over the long haul– watch out. Both Williams and Hubacek have the speed and skill to make names for themselves in the NHL.