LOS ANGELES -- Brad Richards was standing near the door leading out of the visitor's dressing room at TD Garden. His suit was already on with his tie knotted up because he never took either off during Game 5 of last year's Eastern Conference Semifinals.
It was May 25, 2013 and the New York Rangers had just been eliminated from the Stanley Cup Playoffs with a 3-1 loss against the Boston Bruins. Richards was a healthy scratch that night. It was the second time in as many games.
"It was the lowest point in my career," Richards said prior to Game 1 of the Stanley Cup Final. "You never want to be on the outside looking in when your teammates are battling in what I consider the best part of hockey -- the playoffs."
A few days later, before the Rangers fired John Tortorella, the coach who benched him, Richards stood in front of the media at the team's suburban training facility and put the blame on himself for how he performed all season and how his playoffs ended.
He talked about not being ready for the lockout-shortened season despite being part of the NHLPA's negotiating committee during the Collective Bargaining Agreement negotiations. Richards said he was ready for the season in September, but not in January. It was an indictment on himself.
His play suffered. His team struggled. Eventually Tortorella had to shake things up, so he benched one of his all-time favorite players for Games 4 and 5 against the Bruins. He didn't know what else to do. He was out of options and Richards didn't have any answers.
"That situation, when you're in it, it's awful," Richards said.
The situation the Rangers find themselves in now is different, but not much better. They trail 2-0 to the Los Angeles Kings in the best-of-7 Cup Final series, but Richards' story from where he was to where he is now is one he and his team might want to pay close attention to and try to recreate.
It's a comeback story, and no team is in need of one of those more than the Rangers, who have lost back-to-back overtime games to start the Cup Final, games in which they held a 2-0 lead but couldn't find the closer's touch. The series shifts to Madison Square Garden for Game 3 on Monday (8 p.m. ET; NBCSN, CBC, RDS).
For Richards, it was a lesson he learned from work ethic, good and bad.
He didn't work hard enough to be ready for the shortened 2012-13 season. His reputation paid dearly for it, and he almost paid for it with his contract too.
Rangers president and general manager Glen Sather could have issued Richards a compliance buyout following last season, which was his second season in New York after he signed a nine-year, $60 million contract on July 2, 2011.
A compliance buyout would have wiped Richards' $6.66 million salary-cap charge off the Rangers' cap and made the center an unrestricted free agent. It would have freed the Rangers from any potential cap-recapture penalties if Richards retired before his contract expired.
But Sather didn't give up on him.
"For Glen, when he met with me at the end of the year, he said he didn't want to buy me out, that it happens," Richards said. "He mentioned [Mark] Messier and how he's seen this and that. It made me feel like 'OK, they're not giving up' and that kind of catapulted me into the summer."
Richards said Sather wasn't comparing him to Messier, although some strong words complete with a guarantee might serve to stir up the Rangers heading into Game 3.
Instead, Sather was pointing out to Richards that Messier initially had to go through some tough times after arriving in New York in Oct. 1991.
Messier's first regular season (1991-92) was a success when he won the Hart Trophy and the Rangers' captured the Presidents' Trophy, but they didn't make it past the second round of the playoffs. The Rangers missed the playoffs in 1992-93 -- it was the first time Messier did not make the playoffs in his NHL career.
They won the Stanley Cup in 1994.
"You're expected to do a lot of things, but [Messier] came back and righted the ship," Richards said. "[Sather] wasn't comparing me to Mark Messier or anything like that. He was just giving me instances to show it's happened before, don't worry about it, you can get through this."
Now Richards has a chance in his third season with the Rangers to do what Messier did in his third season in the Big Apple -- win the Stanley Cup.
Richards' role as a leader on the Rangers is similar to Messier's back in the early-to-mid-1990s. He is counted on to be the voice of the team. He has been the de-facto captain since Ryan Callahan was traded to the Tampa Bay Lightning on March 5 for Richards' good friend, Martin St. Louis.
"He had all kinds of things happen that for him to be able to come back and play the way he played this year, and to play the way he's played in the playoffs thus far, it just shows the kind of professional Brad is and the elite player that he is," Rangers center Derek Stepan said.
On the ice, Richards plays an important role. He's the second-line center, playing in between Carl Hagelin and St. Louis. He plays the point on the Rangers' first power-play unit. He has five goals and 11 points in 22 playoff games.
However, Richards has been quiet in the Final with no points and six shots on goal in two games. He was a minus-3 in Game 2, a 5-4 double-overtime loss.
Richards might help himself and the Rangers if he looks back at his comeback story and uses it as motivation. It wouldn't be bad if he reminds himself how far he has come since that dreadful day in Boston.
It started with a call to St. Louis. It was more of a plea. Richards needed a workout partner, someone who knew him well, who knew what he was going through, who could push him.
St. Louis, not a teammate yet, was willing to help out a friend.
"Obviously it was a low point for him and you don't wish that on anybody, especially a close friend of yours," St. Louis said. "You could tell that he was disappointed, but you could tell that he wanted to fight to get back his game. He worked really hard last summer."
St. Louis went on to say that in hockey, just as in life, things can turn around quickly when you work hard. The Rangers need this series to turn around in their favor in Game 3. They know they have to work for it.
"You don't have time to feel sorry for yourself," St. Louis said, still talking about Richards. "That's the thing that I admire in how he did it. He just went to work pretty quick and turned it around. He didn't waste time feeling sorry for how it all went. That's the easiest thing to do, to feel sorry. The hardest thing is to get to work."
The Rangers insist they don't feel sorry for themselves after back-to-back losses in Los Angeles. They know nobody is going to feel sorry for them, not after they blew 2-0 leads in Games 1 and 2, only to lose both.
Richards knew nobody was going to feel sorry for him last summer either. He still had seven years remaining on his contract, one the Rangers promised to honor for at least one more season.
There are no regrets.
"He's been terrific," Sather said. "He's acting as the captain right now. He's certainly a leader in the room. He's been a leader on the ice. Great guy."
But there are no promises beyond this season for Richards. He could still be issued a compliance buyout by the end of this month. He could be looking for work as an unrestricted free agent in July.
"It's not the right time to even think about it," Richards said. "It would hurt my game and it would hurt the team if I was worrying about it, so I haven't really thought about it."
Instead, he'll think about Game 3. He's still a Ranger, with a uniform to put on Monday night, a game to play in the Stanley Cup Final, and maybe another comeback story to write.
In a way, Richards is right back where he was a year ago, only now it's the Stanley Cup on the line, not his reputation.
Follow Dan Rosen on Twitter: @drosennhl
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