BUFFALO -- Mike Richards is thrilled to be back.
The veteran center, who signed with the Washington Capitals on Jan. 6, will make his season debut against the Buffalo Sabres at First Niagara Center on Saturday (7 p.m. ET; CSN-DC+, MSG-B, BELL TV).
"It's exciting," Richards said. "Surreal might be blowing it up a little more than it is, but it's exciting to be with a new group and playing again."
The Los Angeles Kings terminated Richards' contract last summer because of a material breach of his Standard Player's Contract. Richards had five years and $22 million remaining on a 12-year, $69 million contract. He split last season between the Kings and Manchester of the American Hockey League.
Richards said he always believed he'd make it back to the NHL.
"I always had confidence and knew I could play," Richards said. "Probably the toughest thing was watching the games when you are used to playing. You have a competitive nature and you just want to get out there."
Richards said his love for the game came into focus while he was out.
"You take being in the NHL for granted," Richards said. "You go through the grind of 10 years with injuries and lots of hockey and you start to take it for granted. You think sometimes when you are going through the grind that it would be nice to have a little break, but then when the break comes and it's a forced one, it's a little bit different. I'm happy to be back."
Washington coach Barry Trotz said he was aiming for a later start date for Richards, but moved it up to the game against Buffalo because Richards has made such quick progress in practice. The Capitals have the best record in the NHL at 33-7-3 and Trotz believes Richards is a great addition.
"I think he brings us credibility," Trotz said. "You talk about street cred when you have won as much as he has. He has also competed against this team head-to-head against a guy like Ovie and they recognize how fiercely competitive he is, how effective he was when he was with the Flyers."
Richards will start on the fourth line and on the penalty-killing unit until he finds his groove. Trotz said it is important to have a player who has won before in the room. Richards has won the Memorial Cup, World Junior Championship gold, the Calder Cup, two Stanley Cup championships and Olympic gold.
"He kills penalties, he's been a power-play guy and a late-game guy offensive and defensively," Trotz said. "I thought it was critical that we got a guy like that who has gone through the wars. It makes us deeper."
The Sabres are 3-7-0 in their past 10 games and will try to bounce back from a 4-1 loss against the Boston Bruins on Friday. While Richards will be in the spotlight, the player they are most likely to have their eyes on is Alex Ovechkin, who is tied with Jamie Benn of the Dallas Stars for second in goals with 26, two behind Patrick Kane of the Chicago Blackhawks.
Buffalo coach Dan Bylsma said it is critical for his team not to spend all its time solely focusing on Ovechkin because the Capitals have a lot of weapons.
"It's certainly not a one-man show for the Capitals," Bylsma said. "Ovi's got 26 goals and he's dangerous getting five shots a game. He keeps firing the puck at the net, but there are a lot of other dangerous players on the ice as well. [Evgeny] Kuznetsov bit us last game in Washington with the plays he made and the goal he scored so there's a lot more than Ovie."
Here are the projected lineups:
Alex Ovechkin – Nicklas Backstrom – T.J. Oshie
Andre Burakovsky – Evgeny Kuznetsov – Justin Williams
Jason Chimera – Marcus Johansson – Tom Wilson
Zach Sill – Mike Richards – Michael Latta
Karl Alzner – Matt Niskanen
Dmitry Orlov – Nate Schmidt
Aaron Ness – Taylor Chorney
Injured: Brooks Orpik (lower body), John Carlson (upper body), Jay Beagle (lower body)
Scratched: Brooks Laich, Stanislav Galiev, Ryan Stanton
Evander Kane – Ryan O'Reilly – Jamie McGinn
Philip Varone – Jack Eichel – Sam Reinhart
Marcus Foligno – Johan Larsson – Brian Gionta
Matt Moulson – Tim Schaller – David Legwand
Zach Bogosian – Rasmus Ristolainen
Mike Weber – Mark Pysyk
Jake McCabe – Cody Franson
Injured: Tyler Ennis (upper body), Nicolas Deslauriers (lower body), Cody McCormick (blood clot), Zemgus Girgensons (upper body), Josh Gorges (undisclosed)
Scratched: Carlo Colaiacovo
Status report: The Sabres called up Varone from Rochester of the AHL. Varone, a center, has 10 goals and 19 points in 33 games with Rochester and is minus-20. … Gorges was a late scratch … Girgensons suffered an upper-body injury in the first period against Boston on Friday and will not play. … Richards replaces Laich in the lineup.
Who's hot: O'Reilly has four points in five games. … McGinn has three points in five games. … Ovechkin has five goals in four games. … Backstrom has three goals and nine points in seven games. … Burakovsky has four assists in two games.