On more than one occasion throughout the Eastern Conference Finals, forwards Mike Richards
of the Philadelphia Flyers
and Sidney Crosby
of the Pittsburgh Penguins
will cross paths.
How they elect to impede the other’s progress will be interesting since the two have a mutual respect and familiarity with one another, but entirely different objectives -- leading their
team to the Stanley Cup. Not to mention, they are each 5-foot-11, 200 pounds and enjoy the physical element associated with playoff hockey.
Richards, who captained Team Canada to a gold medal at the 2005 World Junior Championships in Grand Forks, N.D., not only had current Flyers Jeff Carter
and Braydon Coburn
as teammates, but Crosby as well.
Together, the foursome helped Canada (6-0) outscore the opposition, 41-7, while yielding just three even-strength goals in six games. The team, which defeated the Alex Ovechkin
-led Russians, 6-1, in the gold-medal game, allowed an average of 12 shots on goal per game. It not only marked Canada’s first World Junior title since 1997, but also signaled the first of four straight.
“It was a great experience,’’ Crosby said. “Anytime you get to represent your country and win, you have a deeper appreciation for what it takes to go through a tournament like that. You also learn things from the guys around you and we ended up playing Russia with (Alex) Ovechkin and (Evgeni) Malkin in that final, so you’re just playing with and against the best players in the world. I don’t think it’s very difficult to improve in those circumstances.’’
Crosby, who also represented Canada in the 2004 World Juniors, connected for six goals and three assists in six games for his country in 2005. Richards had a goal and four assists, and Carter finished third on the team with 10 points (seven goals).
“From the first World Juniors I played (in 2004) to the second, there was such a big difference in (Crosby’s) maturity and, as a player, he stepped up big time in that one year,’’ Richards said. “You knew he was going to become a good player but the maturity he showed was something you really didn’t expect.’’
Crosby, like Richards, goes about his work in a business-like fashion.
“Sid was kind of a quiet guy,’’ Richards told NHL.com. “He joked around with everyone and the guys liked him. He would do anything for the team, but rarely did he ever seek advice from me.’’
Still, it didn’t hurt that Crosby, who was the youngest player on that Canadian roster, had Richards as a captain.
“Mike’s a guy who led by example,’’ Crosby said. “He didn’t say a lot; only when something was needed to be said. For the most part, he just led with his actions out there on the ice. He was a guy who was gifted offensively, but tough to play against because he played well defensively. He’s definitely a good leader to have on your team.’’
This season, Richards quietly transformed himself into the prototypical Flyer. He was second on the team in takeaways (46), hits (110) and plus-minus (plus-14), fourth in total penalty minutes (76) and 11th in blocked shots (46). He led the team with career-highs in points (75) and assists (47) while logging plenty of minutes on special teams. He is third on the team with 11 points on four goals and seven assists in 12 playoff games.
Crosby, who was in and out of the lineup during the regular season after suffering a sprained ankle, still managed to finish first on the team with a plus-18 and second with 72 points (24 goals) in 53 games. In the playoffs, he is tied with Malkin for the team lead with 14 points and is first with 12 assists.
Coburn, who has played splendidly throughout the opening two rounds of the Stanley Cup playoffs alongside defensive partner Kimmo Timonen
, was amazed by Crosby’s composure in the world juniors.
“He’s intelligent and brings plenty of momentum once he gets a full head of steam,’’ Coburn said. “He was the kid phenom, so to speak, but he really was unbelievable to watch. I think he’s got that competitive edge and while he wants to win all the time, he has the skills to go with it. When you have a player possessing all those things, in addition to wanting to make his teammates better, you have a leader.’’
Not surprising, Crosby was named the youngest team captain in NHL history when the Penguins presented him the “C” on May 31, 2007. He’s excited to learn many players from that Canadian roster are now playing prominent NHL roles.
“It’s really neat how, in most cases, all the guys we were talking about then have made it,’’ Crosby said. “Everyone has really taken advantage of their opportunities and worked hard. We had a great bunch of guys that had great attitudes.’’
While Richards admits to having a good relationship with Crosby off the ice, that won’t stop him from helping the Flyers attain their ultimate goal. And if that means getting his former teammate’s attention along the boards, so be it.
“I have a lot of respect for Sid,’’ Richards said. “He’s a good player and any team would love to have him. But if we find each other on the ice, he knows I won’t hesitate to hit him, just as I know he’ll be looking to do the same to me.’’
Contact Mike Morreale at email@example.com.