knows all about big-time hockey. The Kings’ centerman has been an Olympic gold medalist, a Memorial Cup champion and a Stanley Cup finalist. He has been a captain and a King, and wherever Richards has played, he has been an inspirational leader and a winner.
“The bigger the game,” Richards said, “the more exciting it is. The more excited you are to play in those games. As the games get bigger, the excitement around it gets bigger, too. As a hockey player, that’s about as good as it gets.”
All of which makes the Stanley Cup playoffs the ultimate dream for an NHL player. Every spring, at rinks throughout the NHL, stakes are raised, play intensifies and every shift takes on a life-or-death feel. Sometimes – in sudden death overtime – literally.
Richards and the Kings have been treating games as must-win affairs for much of the season as they battled to be included among the eight playoff teams to come out of the Western Conference.
“As the season went on, the games ramped up and we got to the point in the season where it hit its peak,” Richards said. “When you are battling for the postseason, everybody is fighting. There is a playoff atmosphere, not only in the building but on the ice, too. Everybody is fighting for a playoff spot and for position on the ice. It makes a big difference in the game.”
The Kings’ tight-checking, low-scoring style of play offered a season-long primer for Stanley Cup playoff hockey. Postseason games typically place a premium on goals and the Kings’ brand of hockey is the style that can take a team deep into the postseason.
“It’s a style we are comfortable with,” Richards said, “because we have played it all year long. Those are the types of games you play in the postseason and we feel good about them. It’s going to be closer and closer games as the year goes on. We are accustomed to it and that can only help.”
Playoff experience comes in handy, too, and Richards has loads of it. When he arrived in Los Angeles last fall, he brought a resume that featured 63 games of postseason play (16 goals, 34 assists, 50 points). Two years ago, Richards wore the captain’s “C” while leading the Philadelphia Flyers to the Stanley Cup Finals while putting up 23 points (7 goals, 16 assists) in 23 games.
Richards said the playoffs have a way of bringing out the best in him.
“That excitement that comes from playoff hockey means you have to get yourself ready for every game,” Richards said. “It’s just the most fun time to play the game. That excitement really gets you ready to play the game. It’s confidence. It’s getting on a roll at the right time.”
What Richards remembers most about the Philadelphia 2010 playoff run is not his point-a-game hockey, but rather the Flyers’ inability to close the deal. They lost in six games to Chicago.
“It was disappointing, obviously,” he said. “It shows you how hard it is to get there and how much work you have to put into it. Not only in the regular season, but in the playoffs, too.”
Richards would like another kick at the can.
“The competitive nature of the playoffs is why we play the game” he said. “It’s pretty easy to get up for those games, but it’s a grind and it’s a battle. I think as a hockey player, you play the game for the opportunity to win the Stanley Cup, so playoff games are very exciting.”
In Philly, Richards was the Flyers’ captain. With the Kings, he prefers to lead by example.
“You come to the rink every day and you practice hard and work hard,” Richards said. “You do everything you can to win hockey games and try to help out as much as possible with whatever needs to be done. Everyone here has a great attitude about what we need to do. There really isn’t much for me to do, other than coming in, being happy to be here, and doing everything I can to help this team win.”
Winning has never been a problem for Richards. During his junior career he helped Kitchener win the Memorial Cup in 2001, and he was part of Team Canada’s gold medal team at the Vancouver Olympics in 2010.
“When you have been in those games and had success, you gain confidence in yourself,” said Richards. “Those situations are why you play hockey. I can’t stress that enough. The big games like that – and the excitement around those big games – is why you play hockey. When you have an opportunity to win a championship, not only for your team but for your country, it’s pretty exciting.”
Richards’ recipe for success is simple: “You have to do something every night to help your team. You want to do whatever you can, whether it’s playing good defense, delivering a hit, or blocking a shot. Whatever it takes to win. You put pressure on yourself to be successful and help the team.”
Whether it’s a regular season game, the Olympics or the Stanley Cup playoffs, when the stakes are raised, Richards usually rises right along with them.
“If there is pressure,” he said, “the games get more exciting. That competitive nature of being a hockey player just naturally comes out on the ice. Whatever it is you do, you want to win. That’s just the competitive nature of a hockey player.”
That’s just the nature of Mike Richards