The Philadelphia Flyers are back in the Stanley Cup Finals for the first time in over a decade. They found their stride when their young captain finally found his.
The playoffs are where dollars are earned, careers are altered, and legends are born. He’s only 25, but Mike Richards’ 2010 postseason performance has sent him down a career-altering path – one that may even make him a legend.
Let’s not kid ourselves. Richards doesn’t have the explosiveness of Alexander Ovechkin or the offensive brilliance of Sydney Crosby. At 5’11 and 195 lbs., he’s not an overwhelming physical presence either. Richards’ greatest attributes are his grit and the balance of his game – he can score, he can facilitate, and he’s as good a defensive center as there is in the NHL. While he’ll never lead the league in goals or points, he will make your offense, defense, and ultimately, your team, better.
If you were to read the previous paragraph in February or March, you would’ve either laughed or assumed I was on drugs. The Flyers were reeling at the time, and Richards was finishing up his worst full season as a Flyer. His assists were down, his plus/minus was negative, and his leadership was in question. The questions were well deserved too.
Since becoming captain, Richards’ Flyers have underachieved. In 2009 they were bounced in the first round of the playoffs to the Pittsburgh Penguins. This season, the Flyers were a roller coaster; hot at times and brutally awful at others, especially late in the season. Injuries were a major reason for their inconsistent play, but weathering the long NHL season is a key role of being a captain. The Flyers looked dogged and Richards’ reign as Flyers captain was in serious jeopardy. That was then.
This is now. As I mentioned a couple of weeks ago, the playoffs have been Mike Richards’ coming out party. Not as a hockey player though, as a captain. We’ve all known how talented a hockey player he is. The Flyers organization knew as much when they signed him to a 12 year contract two years ago. However, it wasn’t until the past few weeks that we’ve finally gotten to see what Mike Richards looks like as a captain…and the view is encouraging.
Night in and night out of the 2010 playoffs he’s been the Flyers most consistent player. He rallied the team from 0-3 to defeat Boston and was the most outstanding player in the Eastern Conference Finals (no official award, just my opinion). When the Flyers clinched the series in Game 5, there were three signature moments that epitomized just how far Philadelphia’s young captain had come.
The first was the shorthanded goal to combat the Canadiens onslaught early in the first period. Richards dashed to the puck from his own blue line in an effort to beat Montreal goalie, Jaroslav Havlak. Richards dove to play the puck, collided with Havlak, and then jumped to his feet to put the puck in the net. Two things: First, as previously mentioned, the Flyers were shorthanded. Many players would have accepted the clear and either ended their shift or sat back for the next attack. Richards saw an opportunity and went for it. There’s a reason he’s regarded as the best penalty killer in the league. Second, it was a huge, huge goal. The Canadiens were flying at that point. They were already up 1-0 and threatening on the power play. Richards’ hustle and subsequent goal deflated Montreal. In fact, they didn’t find any kind of rhythm again until late in the 3rd period. Richards’ gritty goal swung the momentum in dramatic fashion.
Before continuing, let’s take a look at where Richards’ career could be heading. His crisp pass from behind the Canadiens’ goal to Jeff Carter for a 3-1 advantage in the second period provided a nice window into the future. It was a spectacular play by Richards on many levels – positioning, awareness, puck control, passing – it was all there. This is what I love about him. His ceiling is extremely high. We could easily have the next Steve Yzerman/Joe Sakic –esque player on our hands. Yes, both are NHL legends, but Richards has the potential and especially the heart to reach that level. We didn’t know this two months ago. If he can sustain his will and effort, the next decade of Philadelphia hockey should be fun. Even if he doesn’t reach the level of Yzerman and Sakic, he’s already a Michael Peca type player. Peca was a gritty captain for the Buffalo Sabres in the late ‘90’s. He guided Buffalo to a Stanley Cup appearance and was the league’s best defensive center and penalty killer (sound familiar?) as well as an amazing leader. So either way, Richards is heading down a nice path. But I digress.
The second moment was the empty net goal to clinch the series. I know right? An empty net goal? Really? Really. I remember watching the puck bounce to the boards as I thought to myself, “Do it, Mike. Go for it.” (Because you know, we’re on a first name basis.) Richards went for the puck and completely outworked Roman Hamrlik for a good 10 seconds before somehow getting the puck over to Carter who flushed it home. It was one of those moments where one player simply wanted it more. Richards shoved, clawed, and scrapped his way to the puck and wouldn’t stop until he got his result. It was only an empty net goal, but thanks to Richards’ efforts and the prize of going to the finals, 20,000+ fans cheered euphorically as if the goal had just delivered the Stanley Cup itself. Captains must first lead on the ice to have a voice in the locker room. Out-willing the Canadiens on that play was a clear example of Richards’ desire to win. It was more than just an empty net goal. It was a statement. Don’t think his teammates didn’t take notice.
And finally, the trophy presentation. A subtle yet obvious demonstration of how far Richards has come as a captain. In the NHL, any touching/grabbing/celebrating of the conference championship hardware is taboo. The captains of winning teams normally smile for a nice picture and skate away. It’s their way of saying, “this isn’t what we’ve come for.” Last year, Sydney Crosby broke tradition and touched the Prince of Whales Trophy that is given to the Eastern Conference Champion each year. On Monday night, Richards boldly and without hesitation, grabbed the trophy, smiled for a photo, and hoisted the trophy above his head. It was a clear display of Richards’ confidence. I know the tradition, but I know we decide who brings home the Cup, not superstitions. This doesn’t matter. Can I prove this is what was going through his head? Absolutely not. However, watch the clip of the presentation again. Richards has a smirk on his face the whole time. That confident glow is special.
Six months ago Richards was feuding with the local media about his leadership capabilities. Now he’s leading the Flyers into the Stanley Cup Finals. After Richards raised the Whales Trophy over his head, the Flyers’ captain promptly skated off the ice toward the Philadelphia locker room. His teammates followed, hoping their captain will bring them another piece of hardware, one where their names will be inscribed for eternity.