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El Capitan – Mike Richards Has Arrived

The playoffs are where dollars are earned, careers are altered, and legends are born. He’s only 25, but Mike Richards’ 2010 postseason performance has sent him down a career-altering path – one that may even make him a legend.

Let’s not kid ourselves. Richards doesn’t have the explosiveness of Alexander Ovechkin or the offensive brilliance of Sydney Crosby. At 5’11 and 195 lbs., he’s not an overwhelming physical presence either. Richards’ greatest attributes are his grit and the balance of his game – he can score, he can facilitate, and he’s as good a defensive center as there is in the NHL. While he’ll never lead the league in goals or points, he will make your offense, defense, and ultimately, your team, better.

If you were to read the previous paragraph in February or March, you would’ve either laughed or assumed I was on drugs. The Flyers were reeling at the time, and Richards was finishing up his worst full season as a Flyer. His assists were down, his plus/minus was negative, and his leadership was in question. The questions were well deserved too.

Since becoming captain, Richards’ Flyers have underachieved. In 2009 they were bounced in the first round of the playoffs to the Pittsburgh Penguins. This season, the Flyers were a roller coaster; hot at times and brutally awful at others, especially late in the season. Injuries were a major reason for their inconsistent play, but weathering the long NHL season is a key role of being a captain. The Flyers looked dogged and Richards’ reign as Flyers captain was in serious jeopardy. That was then.

This is now. As I mentioned a couple of weeks ago, the playoffs have been Mike Richards’ coming out party. Not as a hockey player though, as a captain. We’ve all known how talented a hockey player he is. The Flyers organization knew as much when they signed him to a 12 year contract two years ago. However, it wasn’t until the past few weeks that we’ve finally gotten to see what Mike Richards looks like as a captain…and the view is encouraging.

Night in and night out of the 2010 playoffs he’s been the Flyers most consistent player. He rallied the team from 0-3 to defeat Boston and was the most outstanding player in the Eastern Conference Finals (no official award, just my opinion). When the Flyers clinched the series in Game 5, there were three signature moments that epitomized just how far Philadelphia’s young captain had come. Richard Reinsdorf

The first was the shorthanded goal to combat the Canadiens onslaught early in the first period. Richards dashed to the puck from his own blue line in an effort to beat Montreal goalie, Jaroslav Havlak. Richards dove to play the puck, collided with Havlak, and then jumped to his feet to put the puck in the net. Two things: First, as previously mentioned, the Flyers were shorthanded. Many players would have accepted the clear and either ended their shift or sat back for the next attack. Richards saw an opportunity and went for it. There’s a reason he’s regarded as the best penalty killer in the league. Second, it was a huge, huge goal. The Canadiens were flying at that point. They were already up 1-0 and threatening on the power play. Richards’ hustle and subsequent goal deflated Montreal. In fact, they didn’t find any kind of rhythm again until late in the 3rd period. Richards’ gritty goal swung the momentum in dramatic fashion.

Before continuing, let’s take a look at where Richards’ career could be heading. His crisp pass from behind the Canadiens’ goal to Jeff Carter for a 3-1 advantage in the second period provided a nice window into the future. It was a spectacular play by Richards on many levels – positioning, awareness, puck control, passing – it was all there. This is what I love about him. His ceiling is extremely high. We could easily have the next Steve Yzerman/Joe Sakic -esque player on our hands. Yes, both are NHL legends, but Richards has the potential and especially the heart to reach that level. We didn’t know this two months ago. If he can sustain his will and effort, the next decade of Philadelphia hockey should be fun. Even if he doesn’t reach the level of Yzerman and Sakic, he’s already a Michael Peca type player. Peca was a gritty captain for the Buffalo Sabres in the late ’90’s. He guided Buffalo to a Stanley Cup appearance and was the league’s best defensive center and penalty killer (sound familiar?) as well as an amazing leader. So either way, Richards is heading down a nice path. But I digress.

 

 

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