ANAHEIM — Brad Richards knew when the conference finals were set if the Chicago Blackhawks advanced to the 2015 Stanley Cup Final, it was going to be an interesting opponent for him.
He was either going to face the organization that cast him aside less than a year ago, the New York Rangers, or the one where he became a Stanley Cup champion and Conn Smythe Trophy winner, the Tampa Bay Lightning. Richards found out Friday it would be the Lightning and then helped the Blackhawks reach the Cup Final with two points in a 5-3 win against the Anaheim Ducks in Game 7 of the Western Conference Final at Honda Center on Saturday.
"Yeah, either way I think it was going to be a little strange, going into the Final against a lot of people I know," Richards said. "Probably more in New York, [because] in Tampa I don’t know the players all that well but some of the staff. I grew up there and won a Cup there and I spent eight years of my career there. It’s going to be a pretty special moment."
Richards was a third-round pick in the 1998 NHL Draft by Tampa Bay, 63 picks after the Lightning selected Vincent Lecavalier at No. 1. The pair helped turn the Lightning into a champion in 2004, and Richards was named postseason MVP.
He had 150 goals and 489 points in 552 regular-season games with the Lightning before being traded to the Dallas Stars during the 2007-08 season. Richards had 47 points in 45 playoff games with Tampa Bay, including a League-best 26 points in 2004.
"There’s going to be a lot of different feelings. It will be special," he said. "I grew up as a player and an adult human being there. I still have a lot of great friends there in the organization. I’m very happy that it is back on track and doing what they’re doing down there. It is going to be special, but I want to win one, so we’ll worry about friendships later."
Richards returned to the Stanley Cup Final in 2014 with the New York Rangers, but they were defeated in five games by the Los Angeles Kings and used a compliance buyout on him shortly after.
He was 34 years old and a team that almost won a title didn’t want him anymore. Then he got a phone call from Chicago general manager Stan Bowman and the entire tenor of his summer changed.
"I was lucky enough that Stan called and wanted to work something out," Richards said. "I knew the salary cap was tough, and as much as I was willing to do stuff, I knew they had to do some maneuvering and they had to call me. I’m thankful that this great organization did that, and I wasn’t down on my luck or anything, but after losing and getting bought out is pretty tough, but you perk up pretty quick when the Chicago Blackhawks call. It kind of got me excited again and thinking about possibilities -- and here we are."
Richards signed a one-year, $2 million contract. The Blackhawks have never really settled on a No. 2 center behind captain Jonathan Toews during this seven-year run of excellence. Michal Handzus spent a lot of time there in recent seasons, but his hold on the position was tenuous at best and he retired.
"As he went along, [Brad] got familiarized with the system, how he had to play as a centerman," Chicago coach Joel Quenneville said. "When he started playing with [Patrick Kane], all of a sudden he started taking off. I think he wanted to play with [Kane] since Day One. Took us a little longer than we would have liked or the way it evolved.
"At the end of the day seemed to flourish with him. The two of them were productive. Had some different linemates along the way, but I think his scoring, his patience level, got a little quicker as the season progressed, a little more jump in his stride. Noticeable as we got further in the playoffs, as well."
Eventually, Richards settled into his second-line center role. He finished the season with 12 goals and 37 points in 76 games, and has 11 points in 17 games this postseason. He had the primary assist on goals three and four to help the Blackhawks extend their lead Saturday.
Now, Richards is back in the Final with another chance to have his name engraved on the Stanley Cup. To do so, he’ll have to defeat the team he’s already reached the top of the NHL with.
"I don’t know if I ever wondered [what have I gotten into], it was always wondering, 'What can I do to get into that groove?'" Richards said. "[Chicago is] a tough team to come to when they’ve been so established. You get in, and I had a lot of … I was still in shock over not winning and moving and a new child, so I probably wasn’t in the greatest frame of mind trying to get my game going, but it is such a great team. There was no panic, and you knew there was lots of help around to get you involved, and eventually you start feeling more comfortable off the ice and on the ice, and now we’re here."
Author: Corey Masisak | NHL.com Staff Writer