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Richards chasing Cup with Blackhawks after Rangers

by Brian Hedger

CHICAGO -- Brad Richards saw this kind of season coming for the New York Rangers back in 2011, when he chose to sign with them instead of multiple suitors as an unrestricted free agent.

But less than a year after helping New York advance to the 2014 Stanley Cup Final, Richards will play at Madison Square Garden on Wednesday as the third-line center for the Chicago Blackhawks (8 p.m. ET; NBCSN, TVA, SN1).

The Rangers, who lead the NHL with 95 points, bought out the remaining six years of Richards' nine-year, $60 million contract last summer.

Richards signed a one-year contract with the Blackhawks to continue his Stanley Cup quest, and said he harbors no hard feelings toward the Rangers.

"The only negative thing [in New York] was we were three wins away from winning a championship in an Original Six city, a great city, and that's why I was lucky enough to pick and choose this summer and come to an Original Six city here, a great historic franchise," said Richards, whose Rangers lost to the Los Angeles Kings in five games. "That's the only thing that's left out. It would have been nice to close the deal and do that, but a lot of players say that every year."

Not a lot of players get to hand pick two talent-rich Original Six teams, which Richards has done twice. Each time, he's been lured by a good opportunity to win the Stanley Cup again, something he did in 2004 with the Tampa Bay Lightning when he won the Conn Smythe Trophy.

Even without injured right wing Patrick Kane, who Richards clicked with on the second line, the Blackhawks have their focus on winning the Cup a third time in six seasons. The Rangers are trying for their first since 1994 and will be one of the favorites.

"It's a good young team, [and was] the last few years when I was there," Richards said. "I think you can see they gained a lot of confidence off that [playoff] run last year. They're playing really well this year, [and they're] probably the best team in the League in the last two months."

New York has gotten to this point by playing like Chicago, which has dominated puck possession during coach Joel Quenneville's seven seasons and puts pressure on opposing defensemen.

"They just play fast," Richards said of the Rangers, who defeated the Blackhawks 1-0 in overtime on March 8. "They play 30-second shifts, they keep the tempo, they roll all four lines, and they just come fast. That's the way we played last year. I think they cause a lot of problems if you're not ready to play. They can get on your [defensemen] pretty quick."

The same was said earlier this season about Richards' line, when he was flanked by Kris Versteeg and Kane. It took some time for Richards and Kane to figure each other out, but once they did, things took off.

Led by that line, the Blackhawks went 13-2-0 from Nov. 16 to Dec. 16, including a season-high, eight-game winning streak. Things were more turbulent in late December and never fully stabilized before Kane was lost for 12 weeks Feb. 24 with a broken clavicle.

Blackhawks general manager Stan Bowman made three trades for veterans prior to the NHL Trade Deadline on March 2, and one of them affected Richards. Center Antoine Vermette is on the second line, which means Richards is on the third.

It wasn't a shocking move. Prior to scoring a goal last week at the Arizona Coyotes and assisting on one Saturday at the San Jose Sharks, Richards had no goals and six assists in 23 games. He has 10 goals and 24 assists in 66 games.

"Production in the last month has been not where I want it to be for whatever reason," Richards said. "I've put in some games where it's tough to fathom why the puck hasn't gone in. I've been around long enough to realize that you go through these things. We're still in a good position to make a run here and that's the most important thing."

After a stretch of mediocrity (6-4-3 in February), the Blackhawks are winning more lately (5-0-1 in March) and have a chance to catch the Nashville Predators and St. Louis Blues in the Central Division.

"[Brad] knows his role here," said forward Bryan Bickell, who plays left wing on the third line. "There's been stretches where it's been high and stretches where it's been low for him. He's getting later in his career and he knows he wants to win, so he just shows his passion on and off the ice, that he has the will [to win] and will do whatever it takes to help the team."

Richards, 34, looks at it another way.

"The culture's been set here," he said. "When you come here, you're just trying to get on the treadmill and keep things going. But for me, the whole thing will be judged in April and May, when every game is more meaningful. That's what's fun, and that's what you play for all year."

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