Grinding his way back

Justin Williams is back.

Earlier this week, on the day the Kings left for their two-game trip to Chicago and Dallas and just 10 weeks after he crumbled to the ice in agony after breaking his right leg, Williams was grinding through his workout of skating, shooting and passing drills.

The Kings' 6-foot-1, 193-pound right wing is way ahead of schedule in his rehab, and eager to help his teammates as they head down the stretch for their first postseason appearance in eight years.

"I'm thrilled I'm back," he said earlier this week. "I want to be a part of [the playoff push]. That was also a driving force on me working hard and getting back in the lineup real soon."

That time is now. Williams is expecting not only to be back in the lineup Friday in Dallas, but on the first line with Anze Kopitar and Ryan Smyth.

"My philosophy on injured players is that they don't lose their position because of an injury," Kings coach Terry Murray said. "I'll be careful about putting him back into a high-end situation too because I don't want him to take a step backwards and lose some confidence. But I have a feeling: Willie's outlook on this whole thing through the injury, how positive he's been and how hard he's worked, being ahead of schedule, he's going to be able to get in there and do the job and not step away from where he was."

Of course, there's only so much a player recovering from an injury can do in practice. At some point, a leap of faith is necessary to help decide when it's time to suit up for a game. That leap obviously took place in the practices with his teammates on this quick road trip.

"You can't practice a game situation," Williams said, "but I'm doing everything I can in practice to make sure I'm not a step slow and that I'm ready to go right out of the gate and make an impact.

"You can't think about it. It's got to be a snap and you're there. You need to go out there knowing you're 100 percent. If you don't, that's how you get injured. You can't go out there and try and feel your way through games."

And Williams is confident about what his approach will be when he does get back into the lineup Friday.

"I'm going to be the first one in the corner," he said, "the first one to get hit. I'm going to get myself involved and hopefully all the rest will come after that."

Williams is only 28, but he has had more than his share of injuries. When he was with the Philadelphia Flyers in 2002-03, he missed the majority of the season recovering from shoulder and knee injuries. And he missed most of the 2007-08 season with the Carolina Hurricanes because of another knee injury.

All of which raises an obvious question: How does this guy keep bouncing back from serious injuries not only physically, but where it really matters, between the ears?

"Mentally for me, that was the hardest part," Williams acknowledged. "Physically I knew I could get back, I knew I could work hard and do all those things. Mentally, I had to get my mind right. There were a few days there early on where I had the woe-is-me attitude but that quickly changes around. You set a mental date for yourself and you push towards that every day."

And then once you make it back, through hours of torturous rehab and recovery sessions, Williams says innate hockey instincts must take over.

"Either you have it or you don't," he says. "The ability to make a decision in a split second is something that hockey players have to do all the time. That's what I'm going to rely on when I come back and just chalk my injuries up to wrong place, wrong time, bad situation, bad luck, whatever it is. I can make any excuse for that but when I come back that's in the rear view and just forging ahead and do the best I can to stay healthy."

Williams allowed himself a slight smile. The very thought of being healthy again and playing soon in a game was obviously having a positive effect.

"Wait till you see me when I'm really back," he said. "That's when you'll see a really big smile on my face."

He won't have to wait much longer.

Tom Murray covers hockey for ESPNLosAngeles.com.