Today is something bigger.
Lincoln Stars goaltender Charles Williams (Ferris State) knew his day was coming. He didn’t know when it’d come. He just knew when it came, it’d be something big. Today is the day as Williams has the chance to eliminate the Fargo Force from the Western Conference semifinals at 7:35 p.m. at Scheels Arena.
“Honestly, I thought there are a lot more worse things in life than not playing hockey and not getting your opportunity,” Williams said. “Everyday I got the picture that there would be something bigger for me. I feel like you can never get down on yourself.”
To know Williams’ story is to know the Stars’ season, which has been in some regards the Western Conference equivalent of the Green Bay Gamblers. It’s a season which saw the Stars draft Kevin Roy (Brown) not knowing what they’d expect and getting a player who scored 104 points making it one of the greatest seasons in USHL history.
It has been a year where first-year players such as forward Luke Johnson and defenseman Paul LaDue (both North Dakota) have blended with veterans like Dax Lauwers, Dominik Shine (Bowling Green) and Brent Tate (Northern Michigan) to have a mix of flash, panache and ferocity.
But for a team with offensive starpower, a defense where it appears missing a tooth or having a beard is the first form of membership, this was a team where goaltending was an issue.
The Stars had Jackson Teichroeb, who at times, played the part of a No.1 goaltender but there were moments of inconsistency. Yet it was in one of Teichroeb’s consistent moments where Stars coach Chad Johnson noticed something about Williams.
“Even when he wasn’t playing, which was about 12 or so games, he still kept working hard,” Johnson said. “It was something we all noticed.”
Eventually Johnson made the decision to run with a two-goaltender system and it led to Williams, who is from Canton, Mich., a Detroit suburb, becoming the team’s No. 1 starter.
It has been a choice Johnson and the Stars did not regret in the regular season and have certainly not regretted this postseason. Williams went 20-4-3 with a 2.61 goals against average, four shutouts and a .907 save percentage in the regular season.
He finished in the Top 10 among league goaltenders in wins, GAA, shutouts and save percentage.
Coming into the playoffs, it might not have dawned on some Williams was a Top 10 goaltender in the USHL. But it appears now people are getting the message as Williams has so far handled one of the toughest challenges in the league in the Force and their goaltender Zane Gothberg (North Dakota), who many consider the best in the league.
Gothberg has played two more games than Williams this postseason because Lincoln received a first-round bye. But to look at the numbers, they’ve been right there with each other.
Williams is 2-1 with a 1.62 GAA and a .933 save percentage while Gothberg is 3-2 with a 1.57 GAA and a .943 save percentage.
“This whole series, he has been great for us,” LaDue said following the team’s Game 3 win over the Force on Wednesday. “The second half of the year, he has stood on his head for us and he’s won games for us. He’s saved us multiple times and it has been great to have him back there.”
Spend time with this team, whether it be 10 minutes following a game or a full hour during a Stars practice, and it’s apparent they like each other.
There is no false sense of security when it comes to players getting along with one another.
Williams is an example of that unity. His Game 3 victory was followed by hugs and high-fives from teammates. Even in his post-game interview teammates were tapping him on the shoulder.
Lincoln’s Thursday practice ended with a shooter-goalie challenge and the winner was treated by Johnson to whatever they wanted for dinner. Teichroeb and Williams, two guys who were competing for the same spot earlier in the year, won the challenge by stonewalling everyone in their paths.
Williams, after every save late in the competition, mocked the forwards and practically every Minnesota high school hockey player by taking his fingers and touching the ice before sweeping his palm through the air.
It made his teammates, even the ones he stopped, laugh and enjoy the moment. It made Teichroeb celebrate with him near the net as if they just won the Clark Cup. It also made both goaltenders some pretty happy customers at dinnertime.
What could make for a stronger celebration deserving of maybe two more free dinners would be if Williams backstopped the Stars against what will be a desperate Force team trying to extend their season.
Trying to close out a series on the road and doing it in one of the league’s more hostile environments would shoot the Stars into the Western Conference Finals, a meteoric rise considering the franchise suffered one of its worst-ever seasons two years ago.
“It’s impressive,” Williams said about what he and the Stars have accomplished to this point. “I give all the glory to God and I just go with what he gives me. He gives me strength and I smile with it. The guys work hard for me and I work hard for them.”
Pulling off a two-year turnaround like that would be big.
It would also be the moment Williams was waiting for.
And, at least for now, it appears it was all worth the wait.