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Richards' all-around excellence key in Flyers' revival

by John Kreiser

Flyers' center Mike Richards has been an
offensive machine this season, leading
the team in several scoring categories.
It took a year longer than the Philadelphia Flyers had hoped, but Mike Richards has emerged as the impact player they projected him to be.

Richards is one of the two keys (along with goaltender Martin Biron) to the Flyers’ rebound from the bottom of soon as the NHL standings in 2006-07 to the top of the Atlantic Division this season. He leads the team in goals (10), points (20), short-handed goals (three) and game-winners (three), and has won more than 52 percent of his faceoffs. His short-handed goal Monday night against the Islanders was the game-winner, and he has six points in his last four games.

In short, Richards has become the kind of all-around player the Flyers thought he’d be when they drafted him in the first round (24th overall) in 2003. He’s quickly eclipsing memories of last season, when his 10 goals and 32 points were a key reason for the Flyers’ struggles. Now he’s a vital cog in their resurgence.

Five up -- Five players who have been hot:

Vincent Lecavalier -- Last season’s Rocket Richard Trophy winner isn’t filling the net the way he did in 2006-07, with nine goals in 17 games. But he’s piling up assists (15) and points (24), and makes everyone he plays with a threat to score. Lecavalier has four straight two-point games and 11 points in his last five.

Tim Thomas -- With Manny Fernandez hurt, Thomas has grabbed the No. 1 goaltending job in Boston and run with it. His 6-4-2 record may not look like much, but he’s second in the NHL with a .950 save percentage and fifth with a 1.65 goals-against average despite playing for a team that struggles to score.

Chris Mason -- It’s been an up-and-down season for Nashville’s No. 1 goaltender, who’s riding an “up” cycle again. Mason is 3-0-1 with a .945 save percentage in his last four starts after losing seven consecutive decisions.

Joe Thornton -- San Jose is starting to come together, and one reason is the play of Thornton, who’s starting to heat up offensively. He’s 3-3-6 in his last three games and had a pair of goals in Monday night’s 5-0 victory over Phoenix. As Thornton goes, so go the Sharks.

Andrei Markov -- Sheldon who? The departure of Sheldon Souray to Edmonton as a free agent hasn’t slowed Montreal’s power play one bit, thanks to Markov. His six goals are tops among all NHL defensemen, as are his four power-play tallies – including one in each of the Canadiens’ last two games.

Five down -- Five players who have been struggling:

Michael Ryder -- Montreal’s hot start hasn’t carried over to Ryder, a back-to-back 30-goal scorer who can’t find the net. He has just two goals and seven points in Montreal’s first 17 games, and hasn’t scored a goal in seven games, since Oct. 27.

Maxim Afinogenov -- Buffalo’s speedy winger has gone from averaging a point a game during the past two seasons to being benched, as he was last Saturday in Boston. His 3-3-6 line in Buffalo’s first 16 games – including 0-1-1 and minus-6 in the last five – is part of the reason the NHL’s top-scoring team last season is in a huge offensive slump.

David Vyborny -- Maybe getting a goal Monday night against Nashville will light a spark under Vyborny, who hadn’t scored in 30 games, dating back to last season. He has just six points in 17 games after getting 65 and 64 points in the past two seasons.

Marc-Andre Fleury -- Pittsburgh’s No. 1 goaltender has been blowing hot and cold — and he’s now in a “cold” cycle. Fleury has lost his last four decisions, allowing three or more goals in each of his last five starts.

Francois Beauchemin -- With Scott Niedermayer still deciding whether to return or retire, Anaheim needs more from Beauchemin, and so far, he’s not delivering. He has just one goal and seven points in 19 games this season, and was pointless and minus-6 in 10 games before getting an assist Tuesday night – not enough from a player who’s had 34 and 28 points in the past two seasons.

Injuries and notes -- Several teams hope to get some of their key people back into the lineup in the next few days. That includes the Ottawa Senators, who say center Jason Spezza, out seven games with a groin injury, could return as

soon as Thursday. … New Jersey forward Jamie Langenbrunner (sports hernia surgery) could make his season debut Wednesday. … Washington captain Chris Clark, who needed 60 stitches to close a lacerated ear when he was hit by a shot on Oct. 26, hopes to be back Thursday. … Boston defenseman Aaron Ward (concussion) also might be back Thursday, and goaltender Manny Fernandez (knee) has been cleared to play, though Tim Thomas figures to get most of the work. … Carolina forward Erik Cole, who was taken off the ice on a stretcher after a collision with Florida goaltender Tomas Vokoun on Monday, was cleared to travel to Tampa Bay for Thursday’s game after a CT scan on his neck was negative; another Hurricanes forward, Andrew Ladd (ankle), could be back by the weekend. … Minnesota hopes to get forward Marian Gaborik back in the lineup this week after a second bout with a groin problem. Linemate Pavol Demitra, also idled with a groin injury, likely is a week or so from returning.

Not quite as close but still hopeful of returning soon are Edmonton defenseman Joni Pitkanen, who hopes to practice this week after recent knee surgery; Nashville defenseman Shea Weber, who dislocated his kneecap on opening night and hopes to be able to practice next week; and Philadelphia forward Simon Gagne, who still is having symptoms of a concussion and could miss another week.

A couple teams did get players back. Toronto defenseman Bryan McCabe returned on Nov. 9 against Buffalo after missing five games with a groin strain. He scored the game-winner for the Leafs. … Buffalo defenseman Jaroslav Spacek also returned Friday after missing six of seven games with a shoulder injury.


Longer-term absences: Colorado’s Ian Laperriere sprained his right knee and will miss 2-4 weeks; Boston forward Shawn Thornton broke a bone in his left foot and is expected to miss 4-6 weeks. … Toronto is glad McCabe is back because another defenseman, Pavel Kubina, will miss at least a month after injuring his knee on Saturday. … Two torn knee ligaments will keep Chicago center Kevyn Adams out for the rest of the regular season, though he’s hopeful he’ll be able to come back in the playoffs. … Tampa Bay defenseman Dan Boyle had tendon replacement surgery on his left wrist and is out indefinitely.

The week ahead -- The schedule still is heavy on intra-divisional games for the next week or so, with no East-West matchups until after the Thanksgiving holiday.

Games to watch:

New York Rangers at New Jersey (Nov. 14) -- The Rangers make their first trip to the new Prudential Center hoping to avoid being the party of the second part in Martin Brodeur’s 500th career win.

San Jose at Phoenix (Nov. 15) -- Through a scheduling fluke, the Coyotes are playing the Sharks for the third-straight time (the Sharks are in Dallas the night before, though).

Chicago at Detroit (Nov. 17) -- The Wings are 13-2-0 against the rest of the NHL, but 0-2-1 against the surprising Blackhawks, including a 3-2 loss in Chicago last Sunday.

Colorado at Minnesota (Nov. 18) -- The Avs and Wild meet for the fourth time this season — all on Sunday nights. Colorado is 2-1, with the home team winning all three games.

New York Islanders at New York Rangers (Nov. 19) -- The Rangers make a pit stop at Madison Square Garden between a four-game trip through the northeast and a two-game swing through Florida.

Tough week ahead:

Chicago -- The Blackhawks start their annual November road trip with three games in four nights against Central Division rivals.

Minnesota -- It’s three games in four nights in Western Canada for the Wild before coming home Sunday to host Colorado.

Colorado -- The Avs start a four-game trip Friday night in Dallas before heading to Minnesota and Western Canada.

Easy week ahead:

Philadelphia -- The Flyers only have two games in the next week, hosting the Rangers and Devils.

Pittsburgh -- The Penguins also get a breather. Their only two games are at home, against the Rangers and Islanders.

Dallas -- The Stars begin a five-game homestand on Wednesday.


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