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Richards gets boost from Blackhawks' new line

by Brian Hedger

CHICAGO -- Brad Richards stood next to his wife and newborn son on the ice at United Center while a video montage of his highlights played overhead.

The reason for the pregame ceremony was the 999 games he played prior to the one that was about to start, fittingly against one of his former teams, the Dallas Stars. Seventeen of those games were in a Chicago Blackhawks uniform, but Richards got the royal treatment from his new team.

It was a reminder of Richards' elite talent. He didn't score in Chicago's 6-2 win, but he was all over the ice. He set up third-period goals by left wing Kris Versteeg and right wing Patrick Kane in the first game coach Joel Quenneville used them as his second line, and Richards seemed like a different player.

"It might be a coincidence, I don't know," Richards told after practice Tuesday, a day before the Blackhawks play the St. Louis Blues in the Wednesday Night Rivalry game (8 p.m.; NBCSN). "I felt like for two weeks leading up to that, I was starting to figure things out here and getting more confident. The role was not big yet, but all I could do was go out and try to get my game going. I felt like things were coming along."

Until that game, Richards hadn't gotten many opportunities to center Kane on the second line. Richards started the season centering the third line and then got demoted again to the fourth line. The game prior to being put with Versteeg and Kane, a 4-1 loss at the Detroit Red Wings, Richards had Peter Regin and Jeremy Morin as linemates. It wasn't anywhere near what Richards or the Blackhawks envisioned when he signed a one-year contract July 1, days after he was bought out by the New York Rangers.

"We had lost the game before and [Quenneville] changed up some lines," Richards said. "Maybe he knew I was going to have a little extra energy that night, I don't know, but it worked out. We had a big win and then we went on the road."

The Blackhawks won five of six games on their annual "Circus Trip" and the newly formed second line led the way. Since that game against Dallas, the Richards, Kane and Versteeg have combined for 30 points (11 goals, 19 assists) and a plus-25 rating.

Richards has seven points (three goals) with a plus-7 rating since being promoted. Versteeg has 11 points (three goals) and a plus-8 rating, and Kane has 12 points (five goals) with a plus-10 rating in that span.

"Me and [Kane] played together a bunch when we were [younger players] in the League," Versteeg said. "We seemed to have some chemistry then and every now and then we get put together. When you add an element like Richards in the middle, that just can create so many more new options out on the ice."

The way Kane sees it, the past couple of weeks with Richards and Versteeg as linemates is a process that's unfolding.

"You start to figure out ways to play with certain guys," Kane said. "We have some chemistry going right now and I'd like that to continue so it can get even better."

Brad Richards
Center - CHI
GOALS: 6 | ASST: 10 | PTS: 16
SOG: 64 | +/-: 7
Richards has become the X-factor. Motivated by critics, he's starting to show there's still some edge left on his skates. His skill has come out more the past couple of weeks and his teammates have noticed.

"He's a really good hockey player," Kane said. "I think in the position he's in right now, he really wants to do well and show the world that he can still play the game. He's a good hockey player. You know, if you're a good hockey player, it doesn't just go away. You've got to get some chances, some opportunity and see what you get. It's been fun playing with him."

Richards' life was a whirlwind of activity following the Rangers' loss to the Los Angeles Kings in the 2014 Stanley Cup Final. Less than a week after the last game, his contract was bought out. A little more than a week later, he signed with the Blackhawks. Less than a month after that, he met many of his teammates at the Blackhawks' annual fan convention. Between that point and the start of training camp in September, Richards went looking for a home in Chicago while his wife's pregnancy with their first child entered it later stages.

It was a lot to process in a short amount of time.

"You finish the Stanley Cup [Final] and four or five days later you're sitting down to talk about the possibility of a buyout and all that stuff," Richards said. "You know, four or five days after you're losing the biggest game of the year, it's tough. You're already in a somber mood and you don't feel too energetic about much. The last thing I was thinking about was trying to get excited about going to a new team."

It took time for the changes to take hold, but there's no dwelling on his time in New York. He's starting to feel more like a Blackhawks veteran every day, and the recent trip did a lot to help.

"The last 10-to-14 days have felt a lot better than the first month," the 34-year-old said. "Not that it felt bad, but you're lost some days with how things go and you're getting to know people. I think the road trip, getting to know guys more helped. The more you get to know guys, the more you can be comfortable and the more you can feel like you're you. That doesn't happen on Day One. That takes time."

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