VANCOUVER -- How good was Mike Richards in his first playoff game for the Los Angeles Kings?
Forget scoring his team's first goal on a 5-on-3 power play, pouncing on a turnover to set up the go-ahead goal with 3:14 left or adding a third point by assisting on an empty-netter in the dying seconds of L.A.'s 4-2 Game 1 victory in Vancouver on Wednesday.
The true measure of Richards’ effectiveness came when Canucks coach Alain Vigneault was asked about his matchup with his own second-line center Ryan Kesler, who also happens to be the reigning Selke Trophy winner.
"I’m not sure I like that matchup,” Vigneault said, breaking into laughter before adding he might change it up for Game 2 on Friday night.
When the best defensive forward in the NHL last season isn’t a good matchup, you know you are doing something right. And that’s exactly why the Kings acquired Richards from Philadelphia in a blockbuster five-player trade just before the NHL Draft last June. It's why coach Darryl Sutter insisted he wasn’t worried Richards had just 44 points in his first season in Los Angeles -- his lowest point total in five seasons and 35 below his average the previous four.
Richards was acquired for his playoff pedigree -- he led the Flyers to the Stanley Cup Final in 2010 as captain after they made the conference finals in 2008. Just 27 years old, Richards leads the young Kings with 64 playoff games and 53 points on his resume, and is being openly looked to for postseason leadership
He showed why on Wednesday night.
"He’s been known throughout his career to play big in big games and he showed that last night,” captain Dustin Brown said. "He’s not a fun guy to play against, and that gets magnified when you're playing in him in a seven-game series.”
So what is it that makes Richards so effective in the playoffs?
Brown cited a unique combination of offensive skill and physical play, especially since the latter comes out of a guy listed at just 5-foot-11. But there are other reasons, added Brown, that Richards gets under so many opponent’s skin.
"He can hurt you offensively, he’s good defensively and he can play mind games with some of your top players,” Brown said. "Playing against Mike, even dating to back when we played against each other in junior, he has a little bit of that rat mentality -- but he also has the skill and the killer instinct to go with it. Look back across his career and he’s not the biggest guy, but he’s physical and he delivers big-time hits; that’s what makes him really good in these big games.”
Richards, who was also a big part of Canada’s Olympic gold medal-winning team in 2010, never doubted his best performances would come out once the playoffs started.
"It's a new opportunity, everyone starts at zero,” Richards said after skipping the Kings’ optional practice Thursday. "I never lost confidence in what I could do as a player. I always felt that even though the points were coming I was getting good opportunities and just stick with the game plan. It's not cheating offensively, playing good defense, and it was nice to have a game like that last night.”
For Richards, the game plan also includes plenty of physical play, including a crushing blow on agitating Canucks forward Alexandre Burrows while trying to hold onto a 3-2 lead and Vancouver pressing in the dying minutes of Game 1 -- a time when most players would be focused strictly on defending.
"He’s going to hit me so you're better off trying to get a lick on him,” Richards said. "That's playoff hockey. This is why we play. It's fun, it’s heated, the crowd was electric – it’s just a good time to play hockey and you want to play hard.”
And not say too much.
"It's just one game last night," Richards stressed several times. "It's a marathon. After one game you have to move on to Game 2, not only as a team, but personally too."
Spoken like a true playoff leader.