A perfect summation of what was received when the Los Angeles Kings traded for Mike Richards two summers ago can be found in the very first playoff game the then-27-year-old played for the team.
The first of Los Angeles’ 16 playoff wins last spring began ominously with an early Alex Burrows goal before Richards deftly used Jeff Carter as a decoy while on a five-on-three power play and snapped a quickly released shot between Roberto Luongo’s pads from below the right circle to tie the game at one. He added two assists, compiled half a dozen scoring chances and flattened Burrows late in the game in front of the Vancouver bench with Luongo pulled that indicated to the Canucks that it would be the eighth-seeded Kings, not the Presidents’ Trophy-winning Canucks, that would be the aggressors in the series. He was named the game’s first star.
Yes, it is apparent that Mike Richards has this “playoff hockey” thing figured out.
“It’s his time of the year,” Anze Kopitar said.
The Stanley Cup that he hoisted above his head at STAPLES Center last spring was the latest in a long line of trophies and medals won by the center, who is perhaps generously listed at five feet, eleven inches.
His Kitchener Rangers won the J. Ross Robertson Cup as Ontario Hockey League champions in 2003, followed by the franchise’s second Memorial Cup title. He won a gold medal with Team Canada in the 2005 World Junior Championships, a tournament in which the heavy favorites never lost a game while outscoring their opponents 41-7. After the conclusion of his 19-year-old junior season, he joined the Philadelphia Phantoms and won a Calder Cup one and a half months into his professional career. Five years later, he was a Canadian Olympic gold medalist.
It’s no surprise, then, that his playoff career points-per-game (.78 PPG) pace surpasses his regular season pace (.74 PPG) despite the advanced competition. He attributes that success to confidence, the quality of talent around him and playing for teams that have traditionally excelled in the stretch run leading up to the postseason.
“Every time you go into a playoff run where you’re kind of stumbling a little bit, you don’t do as well as maybe as if you’re going in there on a high note,” Richards said. “I think that’s what brings a little bit more excitement to our group – we’ve had the same group, and we know what we’re capable of when we play well, and we’ve been playing well lately, too. So it’s definitely an exciting time.”
When he was traded to Los Angeles in June, 2011, the eyes of many Kings followers drifted immediately towards his statistics. How many goals had he scored? What were his power play credentials?
Identifying Richards’ value based solely on the point production he eventually generated for a Kings team a season ago overlooked so many of the intangibles that have allowed him to win a total of 20 playoff series between junior and professional hockey. His previous point accumulation may have also created expectations that would be difficult to reproduce in the tighter-to-the-vest Western Conference.
“Because he came in the trade last year and then he was in and out with a concussion, it probably took him a year to get settled, and you probably saw his best in April, May and June,” head coach Darryl Sutter said. “So that’s what we’re trying to do again.”
It appears to be working. With an additional two points on Sunday, Richards has upped his production to 10 points (4-6=10) over the last 10 games. He assisted on the overtime game-winner against Dallas by wristing the puck off Jeff Carter’s chest and into the net to assure the Kings no lower than a sixth place finish in the Western Conference.
His production has steadily increased in the second half – he ranks second on the team with 12 goals and 32 points – but it’s the three-zone acumen coupled with his temperament that makes him such an effective performer in the postseason.
“He’s not so much a pest as chirping, or whatever,” Colin Fraser said. “But he’s a pest in the sense that he’s hard to play against. He can shut guys down. Kopi’s the same way in the sense that you can put both those lines against a top line, and they can both shut them down because they’re not cheating offensively. They’re thinking defense first.”
Though a player’s approach rarely changes, there does appear to be an extra intangible when Richards reaches the postseason.
“I think it’s more of putting the focus against one team, where you can look at what their power play is doing, what their penalty kill is doing. There’s more focus on the game because you can more or less scout them and you know them more,” he said.
“Then, once you’re a couple games in, there’s that hatred that comes with playing a couple times, too.”
Hatred? Sure, why not. According to linemate Dustin Penner in the middle of last spring’s four-game sweep of the St. Louis Blues, “He arrives at every part of the ice in ill humor.”
It’s an intensity that goes hand in hand with the raised stakes of playing deep into the spring.
“It’s definitely why you play hockey, these last couple games and the playoffs,” Richards said. “It’s definitely an exciting time.”