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Richards ready for sleeplessness in St. Pete

by Bob Matuszak / Dallas Stars

When Brad Richards steps onto the St. Pete Times Forum ice Monday, he'll have plenty of adrenaline in the tank. Whether he gets enough shut-eye the night before the big game against his former team is another story.

Richards and the Stars will face the center's old club, the Tampa Bay Lightning (6:30, FSN), in a contest that will be oozing with emotion for the Prince Edward Island native.

"It's not going to be the same, I know that," Richards said. "I've gone through enough big games in different situations where you get a little different feeling on game day than you would on a normal Monday night in Tampa in January. It's going to be probably a sleepless night, and it's going to be bizarre, anxious and exciting going to the rink and seeing the people that work there again. It's just going to be a different day."

It sure will. Richards will be making his first appearance back in the city of the team that shipped him to Dallas in a blockbuster trade deadline deal last February that also featured goalie Mike Smith and forwards Jeff Halpern and Jussi Jokinen going to the Lightning.

"I think it's going to be a bittersweet night, but I'm very excited," Richards said. "I can't wait. It's going to be weird going into the rink for the first time and not be playing for the Tampa Bay Lightning."

One can't blame Richards for still having an attachment to Tampa Bay. After all, he won his first and only Stanley Cup with the Lightning in 2004, and garnered playoff MVP honors along the way.

The Lightning's second-round pick in 1998, Richards became a main cog in the Lightning's engine back then, and together with Vincent Lecavalier and Martin St. Louis breathed new life into an organization that was plenty stale since its inception in 1992.

But what Richards left behind 11 months ago isn't nearly what he'll be going back to. The Lightning have made plenty of changes, both on and off the ice, and have been embroiled in controversy ever since their new ownership group hired, and then subsequently fired head coach Barry Melrose just 16 games into the season. Lecavalier has become the subject of numerous trade rumors over the past couple of weeks, and now the organization's financial stability is being questioned.

Not helping matters is the Lightning's mostly lethargic play on the ice, as they will likely miss the playoffs for the 11th time in their 16-season history.

"The good memories I have of the Tampa Bay Lightning, (I'm) not going to be walking in and seeing that," Richards said. "I don't think looking over at the players is going to be as weird as it would be if I would have been traded closer to '04 or '05 when it was more of our core team."

Smith, meanwhile, spent two years as Marty Turco's understudy in Dallas beginning in 2006 before he and Richards traded places. The lanky netminder took plenty out of nearly two years of playing second fiddle to one of the league's best goaltenders, but perhaps the biggest thing he was able to cultivate was his mental toughness.

"I've said it over and over again…I think the hardest position in hockey is to be a backup goalie," he said. "I mean, you get a chance to play every couple weeks and if you perform you don't get another chance for another couple weeks, and if you falter they're a little nervous to put you in there."

Smith did much more than pick Turco's brain during practice and any down time the two spent together while in Texas. He also picked his pocket at the dinner table, but not by choice. Whenever the pair would go out for a meal, Turco would insist on treating as the two forged their ever-strengthening bond.

"I kept telling him, 'Man, you have to let me pay one of these times,'" Smith said. "He just said, 'One day, you'll be in my position, and you better do the same to the young kids that come along.' I wouldn't be where I am today without a guy like Marty. We both have a great relationship together, and it wasn't just pretend. It's helped me be a better goalie, and it's helped me be a better person. That's all because of him. I'm sure there are a lot of goalies that wished they could have been in the position that I was in Dallas." 

Smith is now a big part of Tampa Bay's meal ticket, as the third-year pro immediately became the Lightning's top banana between the pipes upon his arrival.

"It's a dream come true," he said. "I think I've taken the ball and run with it here. It's a lot easier to be the guy that plays all the time, and not worry about when your next start is going to be. So I think that's been an easier thing for me -- to transfer from being a guy that didn't play a lot to being the guy that's getting to play quite a bit."

Smith has certainly lived up to his end of the bargain in the Sunshine State. This year, he's become a true workhouse just like his buddy Turco, appearing in all but nine of the 44 Lightning games heading into their affair against Florida on Saturday night. He's posted an 11-15-9 record with a 2.46 goals-against average, while his .921 save percentage ties Montreal's Carey Price for 10th best in the league and his 1,020 stops are third-most in the NHL.

Smith's also taken his play to another level recently. He's won three of his last four starts, allowing six goals in that span for a sparkling .949 save percentage.

In addition, Smith's .913 save percentage in his first 46 games played in Tampa Bay dating back to last year ranks behind only Nikolai Khabibulin's .914 mark on the Lightning's all-time list.

Displaying his leadership capabilities, Smith has also increasingly become more vocal during Tampa Bay's topsy-turvy campaign.

"Everyone had high hopes for this team at the start, with the management change and all the new players that came in," he said. "Obviously it hasn't worked out the way we hoped. It's been tough."

But at least for one night, he'll be able to enjoy competing against plenty of his former mates, and going head-to-head with his mentor Turco.

"Excited, but I'm sure I'll be nervous at the same time," Smith said about the upcoming encounter. "I grew up in that organization and have a lot of great friends. So it's going to be a different feeling."

A feeling that Richards is getting more and more comfortable with.

"It's been a process," he said about his evolution in Dallas. "I've been honest with the coaching staff and the players, and it just didn't feel like my team last year during the playoff run. It was fun, but it's not the same. It took some time. Even at the start of the year with the start we had and the ups and downs, it didn't make it easy. But now I'm fully engrained. I'm moved in where I want to live for the next while, and I know my teammates a lot better now. I know how they do things, and I know how the organization works. Everything's a lot easier now, and everything feels normal."

At least until Monday night.
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