NEW YORK -- When Brad Richards started the season centering the New York Rangers' top line alongside All-Stars Rick Nash and Marian Gaborik, there was every reason to believe he would be a part of New York's hottest trio entering the final week of the regular season.
And with seven points in his last three games -- including his first career hat trick -- Richards has been on fire for the Rangers. But he's done it playing alongside two players that aren’t exactly Nash and Gaborik.
Gaborik has since been traded to the Columbus Blue Jackets and Nash has not seen much time alongside Richards. Instead, Mats Zuccarello was placed beside Richards at the end of March after starting the season with Magnitogorsk Metallurg of the Kontinental Hockey League. In their first nine games together, the pair combined for seven points and enjoyed varying degrees of success with different players on the other wing, including Ryane Clowe. But it's the addition of Taylor Pyatt who has allowed the pair to break out, combining for six goals in their past three games.
"He's a big body. Holds on to the puck good in the forecheck. It's easy to kind of read off him," Zuccarello said of Pyatt, who scored a goal in Sunday’s 4-1 win against the New Jersey Devils off a nice feed from Richards. "There's often two guys on him, so hopefully the puck will lie in an open area for me and [Richards] to grab it. He can throw his body around and create room. And he has a great shot, too, like you saw today."
Before joining Richards and Zuccarello for the first time Thursday against the Florida Panthers, Pyatt wouldn't have been considered the most likely wing to complement the pair. He signed with the Rangers over the offseason and had been mostly relegated to fourth-line duty of late. Before a leg injury to Brian Boyle allowed him to first join Richards' line, Pyatt had collected just one point in his previous 34 games. But he's made the most of his new opportunity, enjoying his first three-game point streak since October 2011 with the Phoenix Coyotes.
"It's funny. It ends up being an injury to Brian Boyle that gives him an opportunity there. He's done some real good things there," Rangers coach John Tortorella said. "As far as his overall game, I think it's been an up-and-down year for him. He's a big part of that line. The line has played well."
More than anything, the emergence of the Rangers' new third line has given the team the kind of offensive depth it has struggled to find all season. And with the eighth-place Rangers holding a three-point lead over the ninth-place Winnipeg Jets with three games to play, Zuccarello and Richards have found chemistry at the perfect time, with some major help from an unlikely source.
"Brad's a world-class player. He's been in this League for a long time," Zuccarello said. "I talk a lot with him on the ice. He comes with some good comments about my game and what I need to improve. I really appreciate that and feel like we get better and better every game."