|Mike Richards is one of the primary reasons the sixth-seeded Flyers have forced a Game 7 against Washington tonight. VIDEO|
"You're going to have good stretches and bad stretches, but you just have to battle through it," Richards told NHL.com. "I feel showing consistency, not only for one season, but several seasons in a row, is what makes the average player an elite player."
The 23-year-old pivot, who signed a 12-year contract extension last December, was anything but average in his third season for the Flyers. He emerged not only as an exceptional goal scorer with an edge, but also as one of the League's finest defensive forwards. Richards more than doubled his previous regular-season highs in goals (28), assists (47) and points (75), while leading the team in shorthanded goals (five), game-winners (six) and average ice time (21:30) among forwards.
For good measure, Richards has backed up those gaudy regular-season numbers with an impressive showing in the Stanley Cup Playoffs this spring.
The 2003 first-round draft pick (24th overall) of the Flyers has two goals and four assists in six games. He is also only the second player in League history to score his first playoff goal on a penalty shot, converting an attempt during Game 3 of his team's opening-round series with the Washington Capitals. The Flyers went on to win 6-3 and take a lead in the series.
Richards is one of the primary reasons the sixth-seeded Flyers have forced a Game 7 against Washington, the third seed and Southeast Division champion. The deciding game is Tuesday night at the Verizon Center.
The center knows this performance though is only the beginning and he is working hard to become that consistent force he feels will ultimately determine his legacy in Philadelphia.
"Richie's penalty shot goal was a typical play for him," Flyers coach John Stevens said. "He created a turnover by checking the other team off the puck, something he's known to do, and then took advantage of a great opportunity for our team. That was a huge goal that gave us confidence down the stretch. To see a kid have that confidence in that situation is encouraging, but Richie is beyond his years in terms of maturity and composure, so if you had to pick a guy in that situation, he'd be the guy you'd want because he always finds a way."
Flyers center Danny Briere, who leads the Flyers with six goals and 10 points in the postseason, was glad to see Richards notch the first playoff goal of his career.
"When the bench realized Mike was accorded a penalty shot, I was excited," Briere said. "It wasn't an easy situation for him, especially when you have everyone screaming at you knowing a goal or save will probably change the momentum of the game."
Stevens, who coached Richards in 2004-05 with the American Hockey League's Philadelphia Phantoms, feels this season's Bobby Clarke Trophy recipient as team MVP is tailor made for playoff hockey.
"Every player on your hockey team has different roles and Mike certainly is a guy who I would say is a playoff performer," Stevens said. "He's a guy that you don't have to worry about being checked because he can play any type of game. He can help your team win by scoring, by checking or by playing physical. He's just a big-game player that I think any team would love to have."
One reason for Richards' remarkable turnaround this year was the fact he maintained good health, playing in 73 games. He was sidelined three weeks with a torn left hamstring, but upon his return, was able to pick up right where he left off as a prototypical two-way player.
In fact, he and Washington superstar Alex Ovechkin have had quite a personal battle in this opening-round series. Each player has leveled the other with a big body check while also igniting their own team at critical stages through big plays.
"I just feel healthier and stronger this year," Richards said. "I mean, last year I had some injury problems and I just didn't feel as though my skating was where I wanted it to be so I don't think I had that confidence you need to be successful; confidence is such an important thing in the NHL right now, as is having fun with the players around you."
While Richards would rather temper any talk of him becoming the future captain of the franchise, there's no question he has the makeup of a leader. Richards is currently an alternate captain while defenseman Jason Smith wears the "C."
"Jason (Smith) is probably one of the best captains I've ever played for," Richards said. "He's the biggest team guy I've ever seen and will do anything for his teammates. The respect he gets from all the players is great and so long as you go hard for him, he'll go hard for you; so you never want to let him down. It's good to have him in that role and I'm certainly learning a lot."
One thing is certain, whether or not Richards is given the captaincy will not influence the way he plays the game.
"At this level, you have to be able to think the game and be in the right position," he said. "As long as you're in the right position, you will keep your opponent from getting many opportunities and then you can work your offense. Being physical and smart are very important."
Contact Mike Morreale at email@example.com.