DETROIT – The Red Wings will meet the Tampa Bay Lightning in the Stanley Cup playoffs for the second consecutive year when they start their first-round series Wednesday at Amalie Arena.
Detroit forward Brad Richards will face his old team for the second straight series.
The 35-year-old veteran played a pivotal role for the Chicago Blackhawks in their Stanley Cup finals clinching game last spring. He assisted on both goals in Chicago’s 2-0 win in Game 6 against the Lightning.
“I love Tampa. I never wanted to leave. I grew up there,” Richards said Monday. “Probably will live there when I retire but I’m a Red Wing right now and business as usual. The team, the players are all different but the memories of playing in that rink I love. If I could pick a place to go play in the playoffs, I love playing in Tampa. It’s a great opportunity, a memory for me to have another chance to go down there but really it’s about the Red Wings and what I can do to help them.”
Part of the help that Richards gives the Wings is his vast playoff experience. He’s logged 141 playoff games, which is the most among his current teammates with the exception of Pavel Datsyuk, who has appeared in 152 postseason contests.
“He’s a good leader, an older guy with lots of experience,” Wings forward Tomas Tatar said. “We have a full locker room of guys like this and I think he’s really a big piece to this team. The Red Wings for the last few years have had guys like this, veterans around and I think that’s what makes this team so special and so good. Brad obviously played a lot of games for us and he’s been great.”
Following his 14th NHL season – and the second that resulted in the Prince Edward Island native hoisting the Cup – Richards decided last July to sign a one-year contract with Detroit. A former third-round draft pick of the Lightning, the Red Wings are Richards’ fifth NHL club.
Richards celebrated his first Cup with the Lightning in 2004, the year he won the Conn Smythe Trophy as the playoff MVP after leading the league in postseason scoring with 26 points.
But that was 12 long years ago for Richards, who reached the 20-goal plateau in 10 of his 15 seasons. While his production has taken a dip in recent years – Richards scored 10 goals with 18 assists and a plus-4 rating in 68 games this season – he will be a factor on the Wings’ second forward line with Datsyuk and Darren Helm.
Richards will also be counted on to keep the power play going in the right direction. The Wings’ PP struggled all season but only recently has it flicked on the switch, producing goals in nine of the past 11 games.
“He’s been successful for many years in this league and I think he knows he’s skilled and a smart guy, he reads the game a lot,” said Tatar, who plays alongside Richards on the second PP unit. “We can obviously use the experience on the specialty teams. He’s been great and a big part to our power play unit.”
One-goal games have been a staple of the Red Wings’ season. They’ve played in more close games than any other team in the league this season, rolling to a 27-9-11 record in a league-high 47 games decided by one goal. The Wings’ 27 wins was matched by Los Angeles and Washington as an NHL best.
Those tight games, Richards said, can ultimately benefit the Wings’ mix of old and young players in the postseason.
“Everything you do you try to take something out of it but who knows how it’s all gonna go,” he said. “You hope you learn from all these one-goal games and how you have to play and how you have to know the clock, know the score, when to try, when to push, stuff like that. We’ve had to learn a lot of that this year and hopefully that’s something we put in our memory banks. But you never know, every game is different, every series is different. I remember last year when we played with Chicago everyone thought it was gonna be this high-flying series, and it was 1-nothing, 2-1 type of games every game. You’ve got to be ready for anything in a series.”
The Wings also have to be ready for whatever the Lightning throw their way. Without Steven Stamkos and Anton Stralman the Lightning will count on others like the Triplets line of Ondrej Palat, Tyler Johnson and Nikita Kucherov, to produce.
“Obviously you don’t have to game plan against those two guys (Stamkos, Stralman) but the two guys who are gonna fill their roles are still NHL players,” Richards said. “It might have a different look on the power play without Stammer on the one-timer. That’s obvious, but Jonathan Drouin gets called up and starts scoring, and he’s fast and talented, so there are other pieces that they can plug in there.”
It’s been a long season of ebbs and flows for Richards, who missed 13 games with a lower-back injury. He says he’s enjoyed his time in Detroit playing with veterans like Datsyuk and Henrik Zetterberg, whom his always admired and rookies like Dylan Larkin and Andreas Athanasiou.
“The leadership and how the older guys come in and set the tone is great,” Richards said. “And the young guys at some point will have to take over because some guys are in their late 30s now. You can see that transition and you can see the youth is very excited to do that. They’re very respectful of the older guys but know that if we want to go far they have to be main parts to this team. You can see that and you can see the hunger in those players and younger guys wanting more. … It’s always sink or swim, hopefully there’s a lot more swimming.”