Two years ago, Jeff Carter and Mike Richards reached the Stanley Cup Finals with the Philadelphia Flyers. They lost, but given the talent on that team, and the fact that neither player had yet entered his athletic prime, Carter and Richards had to figure their chances of returning to the Finals were strong.
Not quite like this, though.
Just over a year after that run to the Finals, that Flyers team got dismantled, with Carter sent to Columbus and Richards sent to the Kings last June. Who would have guessed that, less than a year later, Carter and Richards would be reunited, attempting to win the Cup on the West Coast this time?
It’s been a head-spinning year for the close friends, who paired on the second line to first help the Kings make the playoffs -- no sure thing when Carter came over from the Blue Jackets in February -- and then make an unlikely run to the Stanley Cup Finals to face the New Jersey Devils.
Carter and Richards are both low-key guys, not prone to any type of public, emotional self-examination. On the inside, though, they must be thinking, ``How in the world did this happen?’’
``We’re both excited and looking forward to it,’’ Richards said, and that’s about the most anyone will get out of either player on this topic, as both players have long since tired of talking about the Philadelphia days and their respective trades away from the Flyers.
It is a remarkable story, though, that two top-six forwards, through the course of three trades, could be on an opposite coast playing for a championship for the second time in three years.
Eleven months ago, Carter and Richards figured that their teammate days were done. The Flyers felt they needed a shakeup in their leadership core and, perhaps more importantly, felt they needed an established No. 1 goalie. Out went Carter and Richards, and in came Ilya Bryzgalov on a free-agent deal.
Richards fit nicely into the Kings’ lineup as a strong No. 2 center, but the Kings underachieved for much of the season. Meanwhile, in Ohio, Carter languished on a bottom-of-the-conference team, and there were strong rumblings that Carter wanted out of Columbus.
In the weeks leading up to the trade deadline, the Kings felt a move was needed. Having sniffed around Carter’s teammate, Rick Nash, the Kings were unable to hook that big fish but decided to take Carter, for the rich price of big-minute defenseman Jack Johnson, a first-round draft pick and a conditional pick.
Some pundits around the league snickered at the idea that the Kings would reunite Carter and Richards, less than a year after the Flyers decided that they didn’t want that duo as a part of their core. General manager Dean Lombardi had done his homework, though, the previous summer on Richards, and came away convinced that he wouldn’t have any problems with Carter and Richards together, on or off the ice.
Carter, in particular, welcomed the move.
``It’s exciting,’’ Carter said. ``I think my year was kind of up and down, and things weren’t going the way I would have liked. The trade deadline comes, and I have a chance to play for a contender again and play for the Cup. This is where every hockey player wants to be, and I’m looking forward to the challenge.’’
To get to this point, Carter and Richards had to overcome another challenge: playing together. That might sound off, given that the players were teammates and were close friends, but in Philadelphia they rarely played on the same line at even strength.
Carter regularly played center, but given the Kings’ desperate need for a scoring winger, he made the move. No matter what, Carter was going to have to adjust to unfamiliar linemates with the Kings. In Richards, at least he had someone he knew and trusted.
``I think it’s been an adjustment for us to learn each other on the ice,’’ Richards said. ``He’s a natural centerman, and going on the wing, it took some time. It’s just a lot of communication, me telling him where I need him, him telling me what he wants me to do. Just a lot of communication to get down, to where now we know where each other are on the ice, and just feel comfortable, instead of having to always look for each other.
``Now it’s reacting, and you just have a feel for where he is. I think there’s been times where we’ve made some good plays, because of that. You can just put pucks in there and he’s expecting them to be there.’’
Carter’s addition helped balance out the Kings’ lineup and make them more of a four-line threat. That’s a big reason for the Kings’ surprising playoff run, one that has put Carter and Richards back in a position to finish what they started two years ago.
In 2010, the Flyers played a solid Finals series, but the run ended in Game 6 when the Chicago Blackhawks scored an overtime goal to win the Cup. Two years isn’t nearly enough time for any of those Philadelphia players to forget what being so close to the Cup, and losing, felt like.
``I think just having that bitter taste, and remember what that feeling was after we lost that Game 6,’’ Richards said, ``obviously it’s a feeling that you don’t want to happen again, so that just gives us more motivation, and I think we know what to expect, going in there. Before, we might have been a little shocked or taken back by it, but we know what to expect and we can just focus on hockey now.’’
Now they’re representing Los Angeles, not Philadelphia, and wearing black instead of orange, but the chance for Cup redemption still drives Carter and Richards.
``It’s not the best feeling in the world,’’ Carter said of losing in the Finals. ``You work so hard to get there, and then to come up short, it’s tough to swallow. But a lot of guys don’t get a second chance. We’ve got a few guys in the room here who are getting that second chance. We’re going to do everything in our power to come out on top this time.
``You’ve definitely got to make the most of it. Like I said, a lot of guys don’t get a second chance. We’re pretty lucky, in here, to be going back and have another chance to win.’’