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Honest Player Giving Honest Answers

by Rich Hammond / Los Angeles Kings
In Mike Richards’ most pleasant hockey visions, there is an open patch of green grass, with only an 8-feet-tall, 24-feet-wide frame sitting on it, guarded by a skinny guy wearing shorts.

``If you have confidence, the net looks like it’s a soccer-sized net,’’ Richards said.

If only it could be that easy. To be certain, Richards doesn’t lack confidence, nor should he, given that he is now seven years into a career that has seen him become a reliable 20- to 30-goal scorer and a team leader. Sometimes, though, Richards feels like he’s trying to put that soccer ball in a golf hole.

It’s been a season of wild contrasts for Richards. Acquired last summer in a high-profile trade with the Philadelphia Flyers, Richards exceeded expectations with a torrid start, then suffered a concussion in December and, at least statistically, has struggled to recapture his form in recent weeks.

Richards is a massively important cog for the Kings, whose inability to score has been well-chronicled. The idea of bringing in Richards was predicated on the theory that he would form a formidable one-two punch at center with Anze Kopitar, one that would make the Kings tough to match up against.

For a while, it worked. In the first two months of the season, Richards had 11 goals in 24 games and was a reliable threat on the power play. In his last 19 games, though, Richards has one goal. He had an assist Tuesday to break a streak of eight consecutive games without a point.

It would be easy to look at Richards’ injury and wonder if he’s not totally healthy. Richards suffered a concussion on Dec. 1 and missed three weeks of action. He scored goals in each of his first two games back, but then started the prolonged drought that has carried him into early February.

Is it possible that Richards, consciously or subconsciously, is still dealing with the injury aftermath?

``I feel good out there,’’ Richards said this week. ``That’s what is frustrating. When you’re feeling good on the ice, you think that good things should come from it. It’s frustrating when you work so hard and get nothing from it. It is what it is. Everybody goes through it. It’s something that you just have to fight through.’’

Here’s the good news for Richards: he seems to be coming around. On Tuesday against Tampa Bay, Richards controlled and moved the puck, on the power play, with speed and urgency. His play led to a huge third goal for the Kings. In the second period, Richards made a nice wraparound move and didn’t score, but the puck slid out to Dustin Penner, who banged in a shot from the slot.

Kings coach Darryl Sutter had also been pleased with Richards’ efforts in the previous two games, at the start of this season-long six-game road trip.

``I think he played hard in St. Louis, which was a tough game to play in,’’ Sutter said. ``He played hard, and then the other night (against
Carolina) he did a really good job for us. Other than that, I’m not looking too far back.’’

Perhaps, though, Sutter might want to look farther back, for confirmation -- not that he needs it -- that Richards is a top-flight player. Richards, who turns 27 on Saturday, has already been a team captain with the Flyers and is a two-time 30-goal scorer and a four-time 20- goal scorer in six full seasons.

So while Richards’ numbers, in total, have been a bit off-pace this season, Sutter knows what he has.

``He’s a real honest player,’’ Sutter said. ``He shows up 99 percent of the time. If you’re just measuring it with stats, well, his wingers have to got to score. It doesn’t matter where he’s been. He’s been a 20-some goal scorer, and that’s what he’s going to do again. But a lot of his productivity has been in making plays, and it still is.

``In some situations you say, `Well, he should have shot,’’ but that’s not where he normally shoots. He’s looking to make a play, and he’s making it but he needs guys to finish for him. I said, right from day one, if you look at it on paper, you’ve got to like our centermen. You can critique all you want, but it’s hard not to like those young guys.
They’re going to get better, and they’ve got something to offer now.’’

Richards has had to do his share of adjusting as well. Not only has he joined new teammates, on the other coast, in a different conference, but throughout the early part of the season, Richards regularly had his wingers changed, as the Kings desperately sought to improve their offense.

For a while, Richards even moved to wing himself, as he played on the left side of the first line alongside Kopitar. After a handful of games, though, Sutter acknowledged that Richards is a better center, and for the most part, of late, he has been between Dustin Penner and Jarret Stoll.

``We’re learning to play with each other a little bit,’’ Richards said. ``It’s something we’re getting better at. We’re sitting on the bench, and there’s always open conversation about things. The bottom line is that we’re paid to score goals, and we’re not doing it right now. You can talk about playing the system and keeping the puck out of the net as much as you want, but you have to score goals to win hockey games.’’

So, Richards will hope to sustain his recent momentum, particularly as the Kings fight for a playoff spot in the tight Western Conference.
Richards’ Flyers teams missed the playoffs only once in his six seasons there, and two seasons ago, Richards helped the Flyers reach the Stanley Cup Finals.

To reach those heights again, though, the Kings figure to need to improve on their goal-scoring numbers. Richards figures to play a huge part in that.

``I know the situation, because I’ve played the game long enough. It’s frustrating, not helping the team win,’’ Richards said. ``We put a big onus on doing the right things, and not giving anything up, but at the same time, you’re paid to score goals. That’s the reality of things, and when you’re not doing it and the team is losing, it’s frustrating, but there’s nothing more you can do other than work hard for it, and just believe that it’s going to come.

``You can never lose confidence in yourself, to where you’re second-guessing what you’re doing out there. You just have to go out and play. You can put pressure on yourself, but at the same time, there’s pressure from the surroundings. It’s something we have to relish, and not dread.’’
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