- Craig Custance
ST. LOUIS -- Mike Richards entered the cramped visitors dressing room at Scottrade Center following the Los Angeles Kings' 5-2 win over the St. Louis Blues in Game 2, and an announcement was made for the waiting media.
Richards was available to talk.
"You don't have to come," he said, looking up as a crowd gathered around him. "It's optional."
Maybe he was joking, but you can't help but suspect he'd be more than happy to bypass this part of the job requirement. He's settling in just fine as one of the quiet leaders of the Kings, but the more they start to win, the bigger story he becomes. It's inevitable. Especially if the Flyers keep winning and a potential Stanley Cup finals between Richards' former team and current team grows into a realistic possibility.
Philadelphia's first-round dominance over the Penguins established them as legitimate Eastern Conference contenders. The Kings are now up 2-0 over the Blues and have given no indication they shouldn't be taken seriously as a team that could go all the way.
So of course, it has to be asked. Does Richards want a chance to play the Flyers? Or maybe, does part of him want to outlast the team he once captained?
"We're focused on right now," Richards answered. "Obviously it's out of my control what they do. I have a lot of friends there. It's nice to see them have success."
It's success he's been watching when he can.
"Yeah, I watch all playoff games," he said. "It's the best time of year to be a hockey fan and hockey player."
He's kept in touch with guys like Scott Hartnell and Danny Briere during the playoffs and had a conversation with Claude Giroux after the Flyers star helped eliminate the Penguins in the first round. So much has been made of Giroux's blossoming since Paul Holmgren cleared the way by trading Richards and Jeff Carter last summer that it's been a little overlooked that the Richards trade is also really starting to work out quite well for Los Angeles GM Dean Lombardi, Richards and the Kings.
The intensity and calm of coach Darryl Sutter is a big reason the Kings found a way to navigate into the postseason. The leadership and timely scoring of captain Dustin Brown is a big reason the Kings upset the Canucks in the first round. And the influence of Richards is a big reason they've now established themselves as a team capable of winning it all.
On Monday night, Richards was at his best. Los Angeles anticipated that the Blues would come out flying like they did in Game 1, so the message internally was to beat them to the punch, to have a better first shift than St. Louis and go from there.
Sutter sent out the Richards line to make sure it happened.
Richards won the opening faceoff and 31 seconds later converted a pass from Dustin Penner into the game's first goal. The St. Louis fans hadn't even settled into their seats and the Kings sent the message that Game 2 wasn't going to be any easier than Game 1.
Richards delivered it.
"I'm a big fan of him," Penner said of his linemate after the game. "Just the way he plays the game. He's a great two-way centerman. He arrives to every part of the ice with ill humor. He doesn't give anybody an inch no matter who they are out there. He's been able to be a calm, quiet, steady leader on this team with his play on the ice."
Later in the game, it was Richards who jumped in to defend Penner after T.J. Oshie flattened the big forward with a huge hit. It was a good hit, but Richards jumped in to send the message that lining up his teammates wouldn't go without punishment.
"He made a good, clean, hard hit on Dustin," Richards said. "I think that's the mentality that we've had all year. We stick up for each other, we play hard for each other and we're going to fight for each other."
Richards' goal in the first period was just his second during the playoffs, so his stats don't jump off the page like Giroux's or that of some other Flyers players, but the contributions he makes to win playoff games hasn't gone unnoticed by Lombardi or Sutter.
As the regular season wore on for Richards and each game grew in importance, Lombardi said he watched as the shock and anger that came with being traded gradually disappeared, replaced by an intensity and desire to win.
"His natural competitive instincts took over," Lombardi said. "[I was] starting to see more and more of the Mike I've known."
In the first round, he watched as Richards willed himself to crucial faceoff wins. There was also a hit on Alex Burrows that set the tone for the entire series.
"Game 1 in Vancouver and we're protecting a lead. He nailed Burrows," Lombardi said. "That sent a message that first game as much as scoring a goal. That we weren't going to back off and protect this lead."
Against San Jose, the Blues knew that if they could slow the Joe Thornton line, they had a good chance of eliminating the Sharks.
St. Louis is discovering that it's different now in facing the Kings. Focus too much on the Anze Kopitar line and the trio of Richards, Carter and Penner makes you pay. Carter scored his first goal of the playoffs on Monday night, but his presence alone has made Los Angeles a tougher team to beat this time of year.
"The best way to look at those guys is to take them out of your lineup and see how much you like your team," Sutter said.
The Flyers' influence in Los Angeles has been well documented. From Lombardi and Ron Hextall in the front office and John Stevens assisting Sutter behind the bench down to Richards, Carter and Justin Williams on the ice, it's impossible not to notice. But the Philly West moniker attached to the Kings is sometimes done in a way that implies the Kings have received the Flyers' leftovers. Sometimes, it's a punch line.
Right now, it's a sound strategy. Especially the addition of Richards.
He's not being asked to be the next Bobby Clarke in Los Angeles. The Kings have a captain. He's not being asked to put up huge stats. Instead, he's sent over the boards to do exactly what he's been doing in these playoffs.
He's winning 55.1 percent of his faceoffs. He's a crucial part of a penalty kill that is the best in the postseason right now (the Blues are 0-for-12 on the power play in this series). He's been matched up often against the talented Patrik Berglund, who put up seven points in five games against the Sharks. So far against Richards and the Kings, Berglund is pointless and a minus-3. Richards continues to give his line the edge.
"Mike Richards and [Vancouver's] Ryan Kesler was as big a battle as I've seen in a series in all my years," Sutter said of the first-round showdown between the two star centers. "That was huge. We had no chance of winning if that didn't happen."
It's no longer a question of whether the Kings have a chance of winning. They've advanced beyond that. Winning is now the expectation as this series shifts to Los Angeles. Just like it is in Philadelphia.
It may be a bit early to anticipate a showdown between the Flyers and Kings, but it's not too early to suggest it would be especially meaningful to Richards and Carter.
And if that's not possible, there would surely be satisfaction in outlasting the team that chose to end the relationship.
"I'm sure you're on to something there," said a smiling Willie Mitchell, the former Canuck who admitted getting extra satisfaction in beating Vancouver last round. "It's only human nature."